The Winter Olympics defy most rules of spectator sports. In almost every sporting event, the fans are in some way able to relate to the competitors. We’ve all played basketball at some point. Most of us have thrown a baseball. We can all run. Basketball players can shoot better, baseball players throw harder and track athletes run incomparably faster. But we all well understand the basic mechanics of most sports we watch.
The Winter Olympics are the exception to this rule. Most viewers have never tried any of the sports that will be played in Vancouver. I’m fairly sure no one in the entire world has ever competitively done the “biathlon,” a bizarre combination of cross-country skiing and target practice shooting, except the competitors themselves. And “skeleton” looks like a death wish for those who don’t know the ins and outs of the sport.
For those of you whose closest brush with Winter Olympic greatness will be falling down at free skate at your local public ice skating rink, here’s a quick guide of what to watch … and what to skip, between Feb. 12 and 24.
Hockey: Take NHL hockey, already a pretty good product. Mix in nationalist rivalries, like the rivalry in the movie “Miracle,” a few ex-Soviet satellites actually competing on an international stage and a wider rink (read: more goals!), and you’ve got Olympic hockey. If you like hockey, you’ll love watching Team USA and Team Canada. If you think hockey is just OK, it’s still worth your time to watch.
Team to root for (other than the USA): Latvia, because, well, when was the last time Latvia ever won anything? It’s the ultimate underdog story.
Figure Skating: Those of us who went to a couple ice skating birthday parties as a kid, waddled around an ice rink and then fell on our faces can understand how difficult ice skating can be. It’s hard enough to stay upright and make a lap around the rink, let alone spin three times in the air while going backwards. What figure skaters can do on ice is amazing and, while it may get boring to watch hours of the sport on end, watching a few of the best land crazy jumps in their final run is a special experience.
People to root for: Current men’s world champion Evan Lysacek (USA) in the men’s event and ice dancer Tanith Belbin.
Curling: The games may take a long time, but this is a fairly simple sport to watch. It’s kinda like bocce ball, where each team tries to throw as many “rocks” as close to the center of the circles as possible, while blocking out the other team’s “rocks.” The competition gets, well, something approaching semi-intense, toward the end of the matches. But the real highlight is the sweeping. Grown men and women furiously brush the ice in order to warm it up and make the rock turn. Somehow, they do so. Watch this sport to see rocks magically change direction on the ice and to learn how to clean your dorm room floor in 30 seconds flat.
Country to root for: Who cares? Just post up in front of the TV with a couple drinks and get way too excited about everything. Life’s more fun that way.
Bobsled: Everyone remembers “Cool Runnings,” arguably the greatest movie of all time. Jamaica doesn’t have a bobsled or “bobsleigh” team in the 2010 Olympics, but Japan, Australia and Ireland do. This is a team sport in the sense that there are four people on the sled at once, but like few other team sports I’ve ever seen. So pick out a country-that-shouldn’t-be-doing-winter-sports-but-is and hope they can edge out the Swiss by a 10th of a second.
Team to root for: South Korea, because of Kim Jung-Su. Look up his picture on the Olympics Web site, he looks like the least likely candidate for a Winter Olympics athlete in history. Which makes him the best Winter Olympics athlete ever.
Sports to Avoid
Biathlon: People use poles to push themselves across the country on skis, then shoot at targets with rifles. The sport makes no sense, and the scoring system of both speed and rifle accuracy is perhaps the dumbest invention ever. Skip it.
Ski Jumping: I know this one sounds sweet, people flying in the air on skis. The only problem is that these massive jumps come down to a matter of a few feet between the gold and the silver. It’s simply impossible to tell how well a person did on a given jump until they show you the number on the bottom of the screen. Every jump looks exactly the same. Only watch this if you’re about to go to sleep, or in econ. class.