The Winter Olympic Games are here and that can only mean one thing: time to come out of your hygge cave, don your most patriotic gear to root on your country (while simultaneously ignoring the quiet specter of rising nationalism), and watch the finest specimens of athletically trained human compete in physical activity on a global stage for honor and glory.
A general theme of all the winter sports — whether it’s bobsleigh, ski jumping, speed skating, or even luge — is “how do I use ice to turn my body into a speeding, vulnerable projectile,” and for that reason alone, we have to say up front: all of these sports are incredibly difficult, require tremendous skill, “it’s an honor just to just be nominated,” yaddah, yaddah, yaddah.
But not all winter Olympic sports are made equal. So let’s rank them.
15. Cross-Country Skiing
It is a truth universally acknowledged that cross country skiing is the worst. I won’t go as far as to say cross country skiing shouldn’t even be a sport — it is hard to put two rigid boards on your feet and then use two tiny little poles to push your body over large swathes of land — but for a brief moment, I considered it.
Because let’s be clear: what we call “cross-country skiing” is actually just “commuting,” for a lot of people. Sure, it’s hard commuting. But I take the New York City subway to work every day and you don’t see me calling that perpetually delayed nightmare an Olympic sport.
I would like to shake the hand of the person who invented the biathlon, which is a mashup of cross-country skiing (again, the worst sport) combined with shooting. The best part about the biathlon is that it follows the Michael Scott rule for improv: “What is the most exciting thing that can happen in either movie or TV or real life? Somebody has a gun.”
However, watching somebody shoot a gun is also boring. So they’ve taken a boring sport, and combined it with another boring sport, and while that makes the new combined sport marginally better than both of the original options, it doesn’t mean the end result is necessarily good. So points for creative thinking, but you gotta try harder.
13. Speed Skating
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere! Speed skating takes a bunch of skaters and asks them to race each other, as the name suggests, with speed. But the challenge with speed skating is that it’s just not very visually interesting. Writing for the New York Times Magazine, Norweigan author Karl Ove Knaausgaurd praised speed skating by saying, “All of their movements are nearly identical, making it impossible for the casual observer to tell the skillful skaters from the average ones. But if you keep looking, you’ll gradually enter the inner world of speed skating, and from there, from within, speed skating is among the most thrilling of sports.”
Very fair. But this is the Olympics. I don’t have time to slowly sink into the rich interior life of speed skating as an enterprise, nor do I have the emotional capacity for meditations on the mechanical, repetitive nature of human bodies. Also, this is just fast commuting.
12. Nordic Combined
The Nordic combined is a combination of two sports: cross-country skiing (*side eyes everything*) and ski jumping. And ski jumping is exciting, in a very odd way. Ski jumpers experience the joy of human flight by flinging their body off a small ramp and down a long hill. But the best thing about ski jumping is that, with the skis and the stance that the jumpers take in the air to be safe and aerodynamic, makes them look like a flying squirrel or a sugar glider, which you’d think would get old, but nope! It’s somehow endlessly entertaining.
11. Ski Jumping
This is the the Nordic combined, but stripped of the boring parts. And for that I am very appreciative. Thank you, ski jumping as a standalone sport. Thank you.
10. Ice Hockey
Ice hockey brings out the best (and/or the worst) in our collective competitive spirit. Most of the sports in the winter Olympics are non-contact races against time (and a test of the human spirit, of course), that are then compared to other athletes. Not so with hockey. Hockey pits two teams in an arena where their only obstacle to getting the puck into the goal is the opposing side. And that just makes for good Olympics watching.
The only reason why ice hockey isn’t higher in this list is because even the most casual sports fan can experience ice hockey on a regular basis, so it doesn’t feel just as exciting as some of the other sports.
The best part about bobsledding is how the race starts. The competing athletes frantically sprint, pushing their bobsled to build momentum, and then they jump in it and go. It’s kind of like if The Flintstones‘ car was placed in an Arctic tundra. But once it gets going, Bobsledding looks a lot like people riding in a car. (*Strokes beard wisely*. All of these sports are just basic chores aren’t they…)
8. Alpine Skiing
This is the skiing we’ve all been waiting for! Alpine skiing is basically skiing but on an obstacle course! It’s fast, and there are literal twists and turns, and I can’t look away. If you’ve ever played that classic 1991 game SkiFree, you’ll probably love Alpine Skiing.
7. Freestyle Skiing
You know that meme: You vs. the guy she told you not to worry about? Freestyle skiing is the “guy she told you not to worry about.” Freestyle skiing takes all the elements of other types of skiing — the traveling parts of cross country skiing, the height part of ski jumping — and asks athletes to do those task, and then do aerial tricks on top of that, as if to say “regular skiing ain’t no thang.” Also, Gus Kenworthy is bae.
Repeat everything I said about freestyle skiing, and then give it bonus points because I watched a whole lot of Rocket Power when I was growing up, so snowboarding seems cooler and nostalgic. Also, snowboarding feels less bougie than skiing. (Don’t @ me.)
Let me say this flat out: Luge is freakin’ scary. It’s essentially bobsledding but by yourself (they took away your friends) and on a tiny little sled (they also took away your car). Which means you are hurtling your exposed body down a sculpted, curving ice path. But the danger and speed of it is what makes it exciting. Luge appeals to the viewers’ most base human instinct in that it takes us to the precipice of disaster, and then demands that we look at it. Count me in.
4. Short Track Speed Skating
Short track speed skating is just like speed skating, but in a plot twist that the name signals from a mile a way, the track, wait for it, is shorter. Also, instead of racing against time, short track speed skaters are racing head-to-head, on the same rink. But what that actually means is that the racing and the drama of speed skating is condensed into a more intensely packed sport to watch. It’s called NASCAR on ice for a reason.
If you thought luge couldn’t get more terrifying, meet skeleton, its more dangerous older brother. (It’s kind of like when Trey suddenly burst on the scene in the hit early 2000s TV show The O.C., and he’s both threatening and intriguing.) Skeleton is luge, but upside down. Now, you’re careening head first down that sculpted, curved ice path. Which is something I would never wish upon anyone. And yet, against all odds, and against all better judgement, these athletes turn their bodies into speeding projectiles over and over and over again, and that’s what makes this sport so great. It’s basically a sports version of a horror movie.
2. Figure Skating
Figure skating is low-key metal AF. When you take away all the glitz and the glam and the sequins, figure skating is putting literal blades on your feet, then doing gymnastics, on ice, and making it look easy. The training that figure skaters have to do is unparalleled and then they literally put on a show for viewers. It’s athleticism meets artistry, and honestly, the only sport that can beat it is…
Literally, WTF is curling?! The sport pits two teams against each other, as each tries to push a rock on ice, guided by brooms. There is absolutely no reason in hell that this should be entertaining, and honestly, it’s another one of those sports that’s secretly a chore, which is perhaps the true theme of the winter Olympics. And yet. AND YET! Somehow, by what I can only presume is magic, curling is intensely riveting. A crowd yells and cheers as four people essentially sweep the floor. That is fucking fantastic. That is what I want from my life. That is why curling is the best.