Five-ring Circus

Vancouver Olympics FAQ

Why does women’s luge start lower than men’s? Is the U.S. snowboarding team wearing jeans? Does curling require actual skill?

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

The 2010 Winter Olympics began Friday in Vancouver, British Columbia. Naturally, the Explainer has questions.

After the death of Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashviliduring a practice run, Olympic officials moved the men’s starting point lower down the track—to where the women usually start. Why do women start lower than men?

It’s a strength issue. Luge requires significant upper body force to push off and to maneuver the sled at high speeds. (Speeds on this particular track reached 95 miles per hour in practice runs.) Based on the assumption that women are less able to handle the hurtling sled safely, they typically start about 200 meters down the track, and thus go a bit slower. Tradition—or, some would say, sexism—also plays a role. Just as women’s hockey doesn’t allow checking, women’s luge may differ from men’s partly because of disproportionate concern for the women’s well-being.

Commentators said the Whistler luge course is especially fast.What makes it so?

It’s more vertical. While the average luge course drops about 350-400 feet over the course of about a mile, this one has a drop of 498 feet. Speeds during practice runs were therefore in the 90 mph range, as opposed to the usual 80 mph range. The number of turns is also a factor in a course’s speed. More turns—and tighter turns—slow the sliders down, whereas they gain speed on straightaways. Weather conditions can also play a role: At lower temperatures, sleds travel faster across the ice.

What’s up with the U.S. snowboard team uniforms? It looks like they’re wearing jeans—are they?

No. The U.S. Olympic snowboarding team’s uniforms are made from lightweight waterproof Gore Tex fabric. The designer, snowboard equipment company Burton, overlaid images of worn denim onto the pants—and red, white, and blue plaid onto the jackets—using a coloring process called sublimation.

Figure skating jumps all look the same. What’s the difference between a salchow jump and a toe loop and a lutz?

The takeoffs. There are two main types of jump: edge jumps and toe jumps. A figure skater takes off for an edge jump by standing on one skate—usually the left one—and pushing off with that same skate. To execute a toe jump, he plants his “toe pick”—usually his right toe—and uses that to propel himself into the air.

The entrance to the jump matters too—skating forward or backward, on one’s right or left foot, or on one’s inside or outside edge. To execute a salchow, for example, you take off skating backward using a back, inside edge of the blade—left if you jump counterclockwise, right if you jump clockwise. To perform a lutz, you start skating backward, plant one toe, and take off from the outside edge of your other blade. To perform an axel, you take off skating forward and turn an extra half rotation before landing. The easiest jump to learn is the salchow—named after its Swedish founder, Ulrich Salchow—followed by the toe loop, the loop, the flip, the lutz, and the hardest jump: the axel.

Does curling require any athletic skill?

Yes: balance. The game starts with a member from one team “delivering the rock,” or sliding the 42-lb. granite stone across the ice toward the “button”—a circle at the other end of the ice 150 feet away—while skating forward in a low squatting-type position. This “delivery” requires extreme precision, so staying upright without wobbling is important. (Watch the game being played here.)

Upper and lower body strength are key as well, both for the delivery and for the “sweeping.” As the stone slides, two players brush in front of it in order to control its speed and its spin, or curl, directing it toward the button. Vigorous sweeping requires some stamina over the course of a typical three-hour match.

Just as important as physical ability is mental dexterity. Curling has been compared to chess, since teammates must try to anticipate their opponents’ next several moves.

What is that strange bouquet they hand out to the Olympians?

A combination of spider chrysanthemums, hypericum berries, and aspidistra leaves. The design panel’s original plan was to present bouquets composed entirely of plants native to British Columbia. But they nixed early concepts featuring native salal and boxwood, as well as hydrangeas, tulips, irises, and dianthus. They also vetoed pussywillow because a flying bouquet could poke someone in the eye. After going through 23 samples of various color combinations, the design panel decided on an all-green bouquet tied with a blue bow. A local florist is putting together a total of 1,800 bouquets.

How do sportscasters know so much about the really obscure sports? Do they follow them all year?

No. NBC has a team of researchers that gathers information about all the sports and helps prepare the producers and commentators for the games. That might mean briefing them on the rules of a particular sport, its history, or its quirky trivia. Past Olympics researchers include Dick Ebersol and Jeff Zucker. For added authority, the network gets former Olympians to talk about their sports. For example, Jonny Moseley will talk skiing, while Duncan Kennedy will discuss luge.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Scottie Bibb of U.S. Figure Skating, Sandy Caligiore of the United States Luge Association, and Terry Kolesar of the United States Curling Association.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.