I've heard people say that the Summer Olympics are the only "real" Olympics, and the TV ratings for the Winter Olympics are usually dismal. This baffles me. The Winter Olympics fascinate me, and I'd much rather watch people hurtle down a mountain at high speeds than jump across a dusty ditch.
That said, the Winter Olympics include some events that are not familiar to anyone who doesn't actually participate. Here are five that may need some explanation.
1. Biathlon. Most people are vaguely aware of this event as the "skiing and shooting one." Technically, the word biathlon means any combination of two sports, but this event is a combination of cross-country skiing and riflery. It originated in Norway, as part of military training, and was first an Olympic sport in 1924, when it was called "military patrol." Women didn't compete in this event until 1992. Competitors ski around a cross-country track, with either two or four breaks for shooting rounds. Half of the shooting rounds are from a standing position, and half are prone. Each shooting round consists of five targets, and if the competitor misses a target, he can make it up in one of three ways: a penalty skiing loop, an extra minute added to his time, or the use of one of three "extra" cartridges available for the race. Competitors use small-bore, bolt-action rifles that shoot .22LR ammunition, and the targets are 50 meters away. Setting up a biathlon course is complicated; Maine has a major biathlon facility in Fort Kent.
2. Bobsleigh. Men compete in two-man and four-man sleds, women compete in two-woman sleds. The sport originated in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and is similar to but evolved from Luge and Skeleton (keep reading). The bobsled track is a half-pipe of ice, with at least one section of straight-away and one "labyrinth," a series of twists and turns. A two-person crew consists of a pilot and a brakeman; four-person crews add two pushers. Bobsleds can go about 90 miles an hour, and hit forces of 5Gs. It's been an Olympic sport since 1924, but women have only competed at the Olympics since 2002.
3. Curling. Curling is awesome. Hard-core curling fans might object to this description, but it is kind of like shuffleboard on ice. It fascinated me as a child, because the players don't wear skates; they wear specialized curling shoes, although recreational players sometimes just wear sneakers. One shoe grips and one shoe slides; the custom-made sliding shoes are coated with Teflon, but amateurs improvise with tape or scuffing. The object of the game is to move a large oval stone (the rock) from one end of an ice lane (the curling sheet) to the other; the goal is called "the house." Four members to a side chase the rock from one end of the sheet to the other by sweeping the ice with specialized brooms, which reduces friction and keeps the rock moving. Each round (end) comprises the delivery of sixteen stones, and the team with the stones closest to the center of the house wins. Curling dates back to medieval Scotland, has been an Olympic competition sport since 1998, and is central to the plot of Louise Penny's excellent mystery A FATAL GRACE.
4. Luge. Another sledding event, with athletes competing as individuals or in pairs. Lugers lie supine (on their backs, face up) on their sleds, and steer with their feet and shoulders. Luge tracks include curves and banks, and the same tracks can be used for luge, bobsled, and skeleton. An individual luger can pull 7Gs, and hit speeds close to 100 mph.
5. Skeleton. Like luge, but prone (face down) and head first, and the skeleton sled has no steering or braking mechanisms. Athletes compete as individuals, and many bobsledders get their start on the skeleton. The course is the same as for bobsled and luge. Because skeleton sleds have no steering or brakes, the international governing body limits force to 5Gs. Skeleton was added to the permanent list of Winter Olympics sports in 2002, though it had been included in earlier games. Women have competed internationally since 2000. (Do you notice how late women are being included in a lot of these things? Don't ever question the value of Title IX.)