In general, there are two types of sports at the Winter Olympics: those that are really simple and boring but that you pretend are interesting (ski jumping, alpine skiing, luge) and those that are fun to watch but that have impossible-to-understand rules (figure skating, snowboarding, free-style skiing). There is but one sport, for me, that transcends these limitations — the holy grail of winter sports, entertaining and exhilarating as anything but also easy to understand: short-track speed skating.
Six skaters line up in each heat and race around a regulation-size hockey rink without lanes. They speed down the length of the rink in three to four strides, staying as close to the cones as possible so that there’s no room to be passed on the inside. It couldn’t be simpler: There are no lanes, and each player must simply skate around the track faster than anyone else; it’s not about the times they have to beat but coming in first in the heat.
It’s like horse-racing, but with humans and on a super slippery surface. (This is a good thing.) And the slippery surface means massive wipe-outs. Once every two or three races, the hotshot non-American whom you’re rooting passionately against, in first coming into the final lap, dramatically wipes out and flies into the side wall. It’s much more satisfying than if he were politely passed or if someone “beat his time” a half hour later.
The past four years, short-track speed skating enthusiasts have been given the gift of Apolo Ohno and his soul patch. When he’s not winning “Dancing with the Stars” in his spare time, he’s the best (and most charismatic) short-track speed skater in the world. There is no one more fun to root for — he stays near the back of the pack for most of the race as the tension mounts. With three laps to go, he starts to make his move, slowly passing one at a time — “Just go for it! Hurry!” — until he makes a sudden sprint for first place. And, almost always, he gets it.