This article is a direct companion piece to the stupidly titled How I Would Ruin the Olympics for a Lot of People and has a similarly stupid title because they should match I guess. That article was a fairly nerdy deep-dive in to the ‘spirit of Olympic competition’ and what events I think should and shouldn’t be represented there. This article isn’t about ‘the spirit of Olympic competition’ for two reasons: 1) because I’ve learned that exploitation is the major ‘spirit’ of Olympic competition (but I’ll let the likes of Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff explain that better), and 2) because, crucially, I have never seen the Winter Olympics in the same light as the Summer games. While I see as the Summer games as a competition of remarkable physical competition steeped in ancient history, the Winter Olympics don’t have that same heritage based on sheer physical prowess and indeed, are less than 100 years old.
I’ve always had a very soft spot for the Winter Olympics. It shares the trait with the Summer Games of featuring sports very few people at all consider in the 4 years before games, but aesthetically, it is so much more unusually striking and beautiful. Every event is competed in an arena of glistening white, and instead of in a stadium, they are usually on stunning hillside settings. Maybe it’s my aesthetic enjoyment of these games that mean that I think the types of artistic disciplines I would eliminate from the Summer Games suit the Winter counterpart; events like figure skating which is so uniquely beautiful and awe-inspiring it barely even seems feasible or, less majestic but similarly impressive, other judging-based events like the ski and snowboard half-pipe. I can’t stress enough how fondly I regard the Winter Games when they are on, until they’re over and I forget about them like everyone else.
I have always loved curling, partly because of it’s inherent connection to Scotland, and partly because it’s a puzzle game which is both relaxing to watch but requires excellent technique. I’ve also always found the sliding sports wonderful. All of the sliding events require such incredible bravery, I can never even imagine what they must be like to do, especially Skeleton, which involved going down the track head first but also the slightly goofier bobsleigh which is no less dangerous. I also have an almost grudging like of ski and snowboard cross because, while they are based on activities I find kinda bourgeois, the quick, tight racing is competitive and exciting in a way most racing actually isn’t. Finally, mogul, while also based on skiing is the only sport which effectively and interestingly mixes racing and judged tricks. It’s so fast, mesmerising and impressive that it’s always something I look forward to at the Winter games.
This year though, I didn’t quite enjoy them as much as I had previously though, and that’s why we’re here. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed watching some of the events, like the ones I have just listed, but I was able to put my finger on some reasons why it didn’t resonate with me as much this time, and it’s not just because they aired live in Britain between midnight and mid-day when I was at work.
Part of the problem was with some of the sports I’ve listed above as my favourites. Curling suffered from almost upstaging itself. The new ‘Mixed Doubles’ curling event was great – no less tactical but very exciting and made more sense. I only realised this after the Mixed Doubles was decided and they moved to the traditional 4-person men and women’s events and I realised that, while I still enjoyed the game, some of it’s slow pace and counter-intuitive rules made it seem a bit dreary in comparison. The primary problem is the relationship between scoring possession of ‘the hammer’ (the crucial last stone of each end). In the mixed doubles, like a serve in tennis, the teams exchange the Hammer alternately, regardless of the end result (pun intended). It’s an advantage which is necessary to the sport but shared equally for fairness and adding an interesting tension to the game, i.e. an advantage where there is pressure to press your advantage. This isn’t missing in the traditional game, but it is much weaker because the Hammer only switch sides when the team wielding it scores. Not only does that mean that often one team has the Hammer more than the other, but it often incentives ‘blank ends’. These often occur if an end isn’t forming the way the team with the hammer likes, and so they play to blank the end so they can keep the Hammer rather than risking only scoring one point and losing the Hammer. There are genuine tactics behind this, but a shamefully high number of ends are played through mechanically with each team knocking the others out of the ‘house’ until they run out of stones. This can take a while and has absolutely no tension to it. I still enjoyed watching it as I enjoy the sport, but the amount of time I spent watching meaningless playing of it became a disappointment.
There were other sports I enjoy which didn’t quite land as much because of how the competition (as opposed to the sport itself) was designed. This included all of the sliding events, the winners of which were determined by cumulative times over four runs. I understand the strength of this, it measures consistency, but it doesn’t necessarily reward the fastest run. That, to me, is the most important measurement in the sports but, in some circumstances, someone could own the fastest run but still not win. Even worse, because the event is realised over four runs, by the time we get to the fourth run, it’s often a procession where the contenders only need clean, steady runs to win because the gap is small. This isn’t always the case, but it happened with a couple of the events and made for a pretty dull conclusion with more tension at the start, rather than the end of the competition.
Speed skating is another sport which I had an affinity for that the design of the competition kinda spoiled. I understand that this ‘long track’ version of the sport is more of a time trial than the short-track version, but the look of it gives off, shall we say, mixed messages. Two skaters would skate at the same time, pair after pair until the field had all raced with the fastest time winning. The problem was though, that while everyone was just plugging in their time, they were sharing the track with someone else. This looks like a race, but as the commentators couldn’t stop pointing out, the two competitors weren’t directly racing. It looked like a race, but it wasn’t, which meant that the competitive promise that came from how it looked, was lessened by the lack of racing which only served to dampen the tension of the event. It was stuck between two things: a race and a time trial but was kind of neither totally either (it really is a time trial, but you still need to be faster than the other person overall of course). Seen as the event isn’t really a race, I think it would have worked better with a smaller field and each racer going one at a time and taking turns, one by one, to get their time in. I think that would increase the tension and the focus of each person taking on the entire field and the clock.
Even worse and, frankly, absurd was the phenomenon of the Netherlands short-track team breaking the world record but only getting a bronze because they were in the ‘B-Final’. Short-track is generally the more instinctive version of the sport, but this event is a real thing of nonsense. It happened because there was such a small field of teams and the teams that didn’t advance to the final for some reason were put in Final B, essentially a meaningless, ‘Best of the Rest’ race but because only 4 teams were racing in the medal-deciding ‘Final A’ and two were disqualified, they gave the bronze to the winner of Final B, who happened to set a new world record. It seems less ridiculous in that description, but it is still terribly counter-intuitive. Either Final B should count or it shouldn’t be raced, and so either the Netherlands should either have won Gold, or be knocked out in the semi finals. For the record, I think it should have been the latter. If you have semi-finals to qualify for the final, it should be a straight knockout or there’s no point in it at all; and so even though the Dutch were clearly capable of more, they didn’t show it in the semi finals and wouldn’t be skating again. Final A should just be the final and 1st and 2nd should have got Gold and Silver respectively and no one gets a Bronze.
Then there are the weird events, and not in an endearing way, in a puzzling or disappointing way. I’m thinking first of Biathlon, the combination the impressive but dull cross-country skiing and, for some reason, shooting. I have no idea why this happens, and I don’t see the connection between the disciplines unless you’re trying to find the most technically gifted (and therefore worst) potential Bond Villain – guys that maybe would have killed Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. Usually, weird combinations like this can be surreal and fun, but unfortunately not in this instance. Weird in a disappointing way were two versions of the Ski Jumping. The main version of ski jumping would be a great sport if it was just about measuring sheer distance, which , given the look of the event, it should be, but for some reason, they add in a judges portion for the style of flight and landing like that either significantly differs between jumpers, or even matters. It adds an x-factor to the most intuitive part of the sport and makes it a bit less impactful, though I still like it overall. I was very disappointed, however, by the Nordic Combined. I heard that it was a combination of ski jumping and then skiing and I was very down for it, imagining people jumping, landing, and then going straight in to a race. Instead, they did both sings separately, at different times of the day. Instead of being this cool, intense hybrid, it was drained of it by methodically separating them. I’m sure this design makes sense but even if it doesn, it doesn’t mean it’s interesting.
Finally, I want to talk about the trick-based judged snowboarding. As I said earlier, I enjoy snowboard cross, and I would like to add to that that you need to be very brave and talented to perform these tricks, but overall, I found the whole presentation fairly painful. To be totally unfair to the sport, I’m not used to watching it and it was rare that I really noticed significant differences between the tricks and could discern differences in difficulty and technique, so i’d be watching and someone would do something that looked great but would get a mediocre score, and then the next person would do something similar and the commentators would lose their minds. Maybe the sport is just fairly narrow in terms of what can be achieved, but for this reason, it somehow became a bit boring to watch even incredible stunts. The worst thing about the sport though is how ridiculously uncool the whole thing somehow is, from the big personalities, who all kinda seem like entitled douchebags (i’m sure they’re not, but they seem that way. Shaun White obviously is), to the try-hard, painfully hip commentators who can’t stop saying things like ‘gnarly’ and making lame jokes because I guess that’s the scene. It’s like Tim Westwood is commentating. This of course is a very personal and definitely unfair criticism but it’s one I had to get off my chest.
Finally, and more seriously, while I have no interest in disqualifying events from the games like I would for the Summer Olympics, the Winter games do suffer from the same problem of medal weighting, doling out dozens of medals for some disciplines, and relatively few for others. There are 12 cross country skiing medals to be won, but only 4 for the luge, 22 for speed skating and just 5 for figure skating. Especially at the Winter Olympics, which has a limited selection of sports comparitively, this means that if a country specialises in a sport with a lot of medals, they can be over-represented on the medal table, for as much as that matters. Over half of Norway’s Gold tally came from cross-country skiing alone, and two more came from other skiing disciplines. Norway are excellent at skiing apparently and because there are lots of medals in that, they won the Winter Olympics. Every single one of the Netherland’s Golds came from speed skating, and because of that, they came 5th. Not only is this bad for the weigting of the medal table, but it makes for fairly repetitive action at times with events that are only marginally different from each other and allow for teams to pad their medal haul. I would like to see sports like skiing and speed skating have some of the events discontinued and try to diversify the events overall. I’m not claiming to be especially creative or a genius, but winter sports feel like a ripe setting to invent events for. However, for the fun of it, let me try:
Triathlon: Mass start snowboard slalom; 5k cross-country skiing; 1500m speed skating
Now this admittedly sounds absurd, but i’m not sure it is. Have it as a big race all at once and racers have to essentially change footwear at each stage. They are very different disciplines, but I can imagine there are athletes who can become proficient enough at all three to race. Athletes have to snowboard a longer slalom course all at once; they them change footwear in to skis and race for 5km (a thankfully shorter distance) and ski to/inside the speed skating arena almost like marathon runners entering the stadium; and then they speed skate for 1500m. Add that to the Winter Olympics.
Overall, I wouldn’t change much about the Winter Olympics, I don’t want to ruin it for anyone, but I do think there are ways to improve them, make them more diverse, and make them even more exciting by eliminating the more broken competitions. Regardless of the relative negativity here and the fact that i’ll soon forget about Pyeong Chang 2018, I still look forward to the next games. There’s something magical about the Winter Olympics, even if they’re also a bit lame.