We’re pumped for the Winter Olympics. We really are. The problems is we don’t know much about ‘em—the events, the athletes, the whole shebang. To an extent, we feel this way every Olympiad, don’t we? The wonder of the Olympics is that for two weeks, we are enthralled by people we’ve never heard of playing sports we never watch.
But Winter Games are always more obscure than Summer Games, and these Games seem more obscure than any in recent memory. At least we still had Michelle Kwan in the run-up to Turin in 2006 (she withdrew before the competition began because of a groin injury).
Who do we have this year? Bode Miller? We’re sick of the Spiderman suit, sick of the stories about skiing drunk and sick of the lack of medals. Shaun White? He’s amazing, but most Americans think a Double McTwist 1260 is a McDonald’s menu item disclosing its calorie count (It’s actually one of White’s new tricks, which he debuted at the Winter X Games a couple weeks ago). Apolo Anton Ohno? Throw out his name in conversation, and I guarantee you’ll hear, “Isn’t he the guy who won Dancing with the Stars?” before you’ll hear, “Isn’t he the guy who needs only two more medals to pass Bonnie Blair as the most decorated American speed skater of all time?”
We’ve got a serious lack of star power here, though NBC will do its best to change that ASAP. Worse, we’re clueless about how most events—even familiar ones—actually work (You mean there’s no such thing as a perfect 10 any more?). So here’s a quick list of five things you should know about the Winter Olympics before Friday’s opening ceremony.
- Rachael Flatt: Let’s face it, ladies’ singles figure skating is the glamour event of the Games, which means knowing the top U.S. entry is a must. “Reliable Rachael” is a media darling in waiting: A blond California girl, a straight-A student and the reigning national champion. She’s not considered a gold-medal contender but did win the 2008 world junior championship.
- Ice dancing is different from pairs figure skating: People confuse these two like a set of twins. Many of us have sat on our sofas, watching Olympic ice dancing, waiting for a breathtaking release or peek-through-your-fingers headbanger that never comes. They never come because they’re not part of ice dancing. Ice dancing is more subtle than pairs figure skating, more about presence and artistry. If that sounds yawn-worthy, I can empathize, but keep this in mind: Of all the figure skating disciplines, ice dancing is America’s strongest at these Games. Two couples—Meryl Davis and Charlie White, and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto—have good chances to win medals.
- Skeleton: I think this sport is so named because after the wind has peeled all the flesh off a slider’s bones as he careens 80 miles-an-hour headfirst down a windy, icy track, that’s all that’s left. OK, that’s a myth, and here’s another: Skeleton is a new, daredevil endeavor. In fact, skeleton was contested at the 1928 and 1948 Olympics. It only seems new because it took a 54-year hiatus before returning at Salt Lake City, in 2002. It’s worth watching because it’s more exciting than luge (chalk it up to the headfirst factor) and more transparent than bobsled. We all love “Cool Runnings,” but you can’t see what’s going on in a bobsled. You can, however, see how an exposed skeleton slider shifts his weight to manipulate the sled.
- The five alpine skiing events: We’ve all heard the names—downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G and super combined—but most of us aren’t really sure what distinguishes one from the others. Basically, downhill and super-G (short for super giant slalom) are classified as speed disciplines, while slalom and giant slalom are technical disciplines. Super combined is, as the name implies, a combination of downhill and slalom. The main difference between speed and technical disciplines is carving—there’s more in the latter. Slalom has the most—and closest—gates (poles around which racers must weave); giant slalom has fewer gates, spaced farther apart; super-G has still fewer, more widely spaced gates; and downhill has the fewest, most widely-spaced gates, allowing racers to reach speeds of 90 miles per hour.
Team USA won’t dominate: Americans will likely own snowboarding, but it’s important to remember that, unlike at most Summer Olympics, “The Star Spangled Banner” won’t be on loop for a fortnight. In 20 Winter Games, Team USA has earned double-digit gold medals only once, as the host in ’02. And since this is a global event, it’s worth taking an interest in other countries.