A Primer on the Four Olympic Events Debuting in Pyeongchang

The Winter Games hope to stay popular, with new disciplines that create shareable videos or feature men and women competing together

Mass start speed skating sounds like chaos. Sputnik via AP

As usual, the Winter Olympics will be a testament to talent, discipline and dedication. But, more so than ever, visuals matter.

They long have, to some degree, but today a steady supply of rewatchable images is key to not only keeping a global TV audience engaged, but also ensuring that Olympics videos are being shared on smartphones around the world.

If you have any doubt, consider the four competitions that have been added to the upcoming event in Pyeongchang, South Korea. One is called “snowboarding big air,” another, “mass start speed skating,” and a third will feature skiers racing down slalom courses next to each other. Even the fourth, a mixed doubles version of curling, is meant to be a faster, more entertaining version of a sport that remains an enigma to many.

Here’s what you need to know about the new events:

Mass Start Speed Skating

Imagine the Tour de France on ice. Okay, the competitors will be on skates, not bikes, but the effect is not all that different—a pack of racers jostling, bumping and sometimes wiping out as they fly around a course.

The concept is fairly basic—as many as 24 skaters hurtling around together for 16 laps. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. No passing is permitted on the first lap, but then anything goes. Well, not anything, a blatant push or trip will result in disqualification. But you can expect a lot of contact since the skaters don’t have to stay in lanes.

Here’s another twist: four laps are designated as sprints and the three fastest skaters of each receives five, three and one point respectively. But what really matters is the end of race—the three top finishers get 60, 40 and 20 points, which means they usually take home the medals.

Despite the sprint laps, the race is better suited for endurance athletes than speedsters. And, it requires strategy. Skaters jockey for position, drafting behind competitors ahead of them. They may choose to hang back until the later laps. Members of the same team can run interference for each other, or one may chase down a breakaway to help the other.

In short, a lot can happen during the race, which lasts about seven and a half minutes for men, and eight minutes for women.

Actually, the event isn’t completely new to the Olympics. A scaled-down version, with fewer skaters, was part of the Games at Lake Placid in 1932. But that was its only appearance until this year. The skaters move faster these days—up to 35 miles per hour—and given the amount of contact, they are required to wear helmets, along with gloves that can’t be cut by errant, extra sharp speedskating blades. They also wear cut-proof undersuits, with reinforced patches over major arteries.

Among the top medal contenders on the men’s side are two Americans, Joey Mantia and K.C. Boutiette, who at 47, will be the oldest Olympics speed skater since 1924. Another favorite is South Korean skater Lee Seung-Hoon. On the women’s side, the best bets are Kim Bo-Reum, of South Korea; Ivanie Blondin, of Canada; and Francesca Lollobrigida, of Italy. Others considered to have a shot at a medal are American Heather Bergsma and German Claudia Pechstein, who has already won nine Olympic medals in her career. She will turn 46 at the Olympics.

Here’s a sample of a women's World Cup race in The Netherlands last November. 

LADIES - MASS START | 2017/2018 ISU Speed Skating World Cup - Heerenveen (NED)

Snowboarding Big Air

Four years ago, snowboarding slopestyle was a big hit when it made its Olympics debut in Sochi. Now, another snowboarding event has been added, this one designed to boost the wow factor even more. Unlike slopestyle, where athletes do tricks as they sail over jumps and ride on rails on a course, “Big Air”  is all about one jump. One very big jump.

The ramp at Pyeongchang is the largest of its kind in the world—more than 160 feet long with a downward angle of 40 degrees at its steepest point. Snowboarders fly down the ramp at speeds approaching 50 mph, then are launched into the sky. For the next few seconds, while they are airborne, they perform a combination of spins and flips they hope will dazzle the judges.

In the finals, each competitor makes three jumps, and the scores from the two best runs are added together to determine his or her score. Each rider must spin their tricks in different directions on two of their runs. They’re judged on the difficulty of their tricks—those with more rotation are considered harder—their execution and control, their amplitude (how much air they get), and their landing.

Six judges score the jumps, with the highest and lowest results dropped. 

Snowboarding Big Air has been part of the Winter X-Games since the 1990s, then added to the World Championships in 2003. Critics have described the event as more spectacle than sport, but that’s undoubtedly part of its appeal.

There’s also the risk. Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris, one of the medal favorites, broke his leg landing a Big Air jump two years ago. And, a little more than a year ago, McMorris flew into a tree while filming jumps. He fractured his jaw, broke several ribs, cracked his pelvis, ruptured his spleen and had a collapsed lung. Remarkably, he recovered enough to take first place in a World Cup event in Beijing last November.

Fellow Canadian Max Parrot is another medal contender, along with American Ryan Stassel and Norwegian Marcus Kleveland. Austrian Anna Gasser is the popular pick to win the women’s gold medal, but several Americans, including Julia Marino, Halley Langland and Jamie Anderson are thought to have a good chance to finish in the top three.

Here are the three top jumps from a Men’s Big Air World Cup competition in Pyeongchang in 2016. 

Highlights | McMorris shines in Korean Big Air | FIS Snowboard

Mixed Team Alpine Skiing

When it comes to visual appeal, watching a competitor race against the clock rarely delivers the same visceral thrill as seeing two athletes doing whatever it takes to beat each other. That’s a big attraction of the mixed team alpine skiing event that’s been added to this year’s Olympics. So is the fact that it features men and women competing together, a nod to a priority to “foster gender equality,” recommended in the Olympic Agenda 2020.   

There’s little nuance to this event. Two men and two women from each of 16 qualifying countries take turns barreling down a short slalom course next to a skier from another country. Two women race first, followed by two men, then two women again and finally the remaining two men.

The team that wins the most of these head-to-head races moves on to the next round. If each team wins two, the winner is determined by the team with the best individual run time. If both racers fall, the first one to get up and finish the race wins. If neither can finish, the winner is the one who makes it farthest down the hill.

These are short races—about 25 seconds to get down the course—so a fast start is critical, and the skiers routinely punch gates out of the way as they speed to the finish line. The gates are spaced 10 meters—or about 33 feet—apart.

An Alpine Team Event has been part of the World Championships since 2005, but the format of having skiers compete on parallel courses wasn’t added until 2011. While individual races don’t last long, it’s considered a demanding event because skiers for winning teams have to make it through several rounds in a day.

The French, Austrian and Swedish teams are considered the favorites to medal. 

Here’s a taste of this event from a competition in Switzerland's St. Moritz last year. 

Team Event 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, St. Moritz

Curling Mixed Doubles

To the uninitiated, the sport of curling can seem a bizarre way to spend a few hours, characterized by players frantically sweeping brooms in front of a large round “stone” to direct its path as it slides down the ice. But to its fans, who appreciate the subtleties of controlling where a stone stops, it’s seen as what’s been described as “chess on ice.”

The sport has its roots in the 16th century, when it was a game played on frozen ponds and lakes in Scotland. By the early  19th century, it began to catch on in Canada and the U.S., and became popular enough to make its debut at the 1924 Winter Olympics. But then it was dropped as a medal event until 1998, although it had been a demonstration sport at the Olympics five times.

Heretofore, curling competition in the Olympics has involved separate men’s and women’s teams. This year, however, a mixed doubles version will be added. That’s actually been around for a while, but largely as more of a social activity than an official sport. It’s another example of the Olympics showcasing more events where men and women are teammates.

The basic rules are pretty similar to more traditional curling—points are scored depending on how many stones—each of which weighs about 40 pounds—stops in an area of four concentric circles at the other end of the ice known as the “house.”  In that way, it’s not unlike how points are scored in a game of darts.

But mixed doubles matches move faster because each team has only two players—a man and a woman—instead of the usual four. Also, the players push five stones for each of eight “ends”—analogous to baseball innings—instead of eight stones for 10 ends. And, to speed things up, the game begins with one stone already positioned in the house and another a slight distance in front of it as a guard.

Because there are only two players, each has to be more involved in the strategy, particularly the sweeping, which reduces the friction in front of a sliding stone to speed it up and increase its distance.

Canada tends to dominate the sport in the Olympics, but its team is not a favorite in the mixed doubles event. Instead, Switzerland and China are expected to compete for the gold medal. Because only eight countries will compete, the American team of siblings Becca and Matt Hamilton is also thought to have a shot at a medal.

Here’s a video explainer: 

What is Mixed Doubles Curling?

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