Five-ring Circus

Every Sport in the Winter Olympics, Ranked

PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Gangneung on February 6, 2018.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by David Ramos/Getty Images, Robert Cianflone/Getty Images, Al Bello/Getty Images, Lars Baron/Getty Images, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

If the Olympics have taught us anything, it’s that there is great merit in ranking things in numerical order. This is a fun and useful exercise! Over the next few weeks, the Olympic judges will rank the participants within the 15 Winter Olympic sports to determine who deserves a gold medal and who deserves to be pushed down the luge track without a sled. But how do the sports themselves rank when considered as elements of a set?

To answer that very important question, I have devised an intricate, peer-reviewed ranking system that evaluates each sport on four separate criteria:

Watchability (10 points): How much fun is it to watch this sport at home? How high is the barrier to casual viewership? If you know nothing at all about the sport and flip past it on television, how long would you stick around before changing the channel?

History (10 points): How central is this sport to the entire Winter Olympics enterprise? How much of a gap would this sport leave if it were gone? Could you imagine Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, participating in this sport?

Aesthetics (10 points): How beautiful is this sport? Does peak performance nourish the viewer’s soul? Would this sport ever inspire music or poetry?

Miscellaneous (5 points): Those intangible elements that are hard to quantify. Could a replacement-level person off the street do the sport for any length of time without getting hurt or laughed at? Would a 9-year-old find this sport fun?

The final score, or “WHAM Factor,” will determine which winter sports rule and which drool. These judgments are inarguable and final.

15. Nordic combined

My sincere apologies to all of you Nordic combined fanatics out there, but some sport had to bring up the rear, and, frankly, it was always going to be this one. Nordic combined is the least essential Winter Olympic sport, and not just because it is the only one that features no female competitors. Yes, sure, it has been around since the first Winter Olympics, but if it were gone, very few people would miss it, and the ones who did could just separately watch ski jumping and cross-country skiing—the two sports Nordic combined combines into one.

WHAM Factor: 14/35. Nordic combined gets 4 points for watchability because at least it does involve ski jumping, which is great; 5 points for history, due solely to its longevity; 3 points for aesthetics; and 2 out of 5 miscellaneous points for being a mashup, because I enjoy the work of Danger Mouse.

14. Skeleton

Skeleton is the least essential sliding sport, and sliding sports are the worst Winter Olympic sports, which makes skeleton the least of the worst. While it sounds great in the abstract—shooting head-first down ice tracks on flimsy skate-sleds! reaching very high speeds at great personal risk!—skeleton is not particularly beautiful and, while exciting in the short term, is not something you’d ever want to watch for hours at a time. It’s only been a permanent part of the Olympic programme since 2002, so it’s not as if there’s any historical reason to revere or retain it, though I do like to imagine Baron de Coubertin being forced into a garishly airbrushed helmet and being sent down the track as the arena rings with his cries of puzzlement: “But how does this bring lasting peace to Euroooooooooooope????”

WHAM Factor: 16/35. Skeleton gets 7 points for watchability; 4 points for aesthetics; 2 points for history; and 3 miscellaneous points doled out almost exclusively on the strength of its exciting name.

13 (tie). Cross-country skiing

Sam Evans-Brown recently wrote for Slate about the joys and pleasures of cross-country skiing, and made a strong case for why the sport is actually fun. It’s a good piece. You should read it. But here’s the rub: While I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that cross-country skiing may be fun for participants, it’s still very clearly one of the worst Winter Olympic sports. In terms of casual watchability, it falls somewhere between race-walking and old C-SPAN reruns. While it wins points for aesthetics and history—there is beauty in the willpower required to force your body through a cross-country course, and the sport has been there since the very beginning—it loses miscellaneous points, because the sort of 9-year-old who finds cross-country skiing fun is also the sort of 9-year-old who asks the teacher for more homework.

WHAM Factor: 18/35. Cross-country skiing gets 2 points for watchability; 9 points for history; 5 points for aesthetics; and 2 miscellaneous points for being one of the few Olympic sports that, in some parts of the world, is also a method of commuting to work.

13 (tie). Luge

Luge, otherwise known as “the feet-first version of skeleton,” has been around longer than skeleton—it’s been a Winter Olympic sport since 1964—which is the only reason why it ranks higher. But while luge has been around for a long time, it hasn’t really penetrated the consciousness of the American public. How many famous lugers can you name? Probably zero. (Peter Luger Steakhouse does not count.) And you can’t blame it all on lack of TV coverage. Luge has been around for decades; if it were interesting, someone would have noticed by now.

WHAM Factor: 18/35. 6 for watchability; 6 for history; 4 for aesthetics; and 2 miscellaneous points, because I have great respect for any activity that can be undertaken while lying down.

11. Freestyle skiing

Freestyle skiing—in which competitors either a) ski down rough terrain, or b) perform midair tricks—is sort of like snowboarding on skis. This would be a great event if snowboarding weren’t already an Olympic sport. Since it is, freestyle skiing seems imitative and unnecessary. However, there is a very easy way for freestyle skiing to improve its ranking: add ski ballet to its list of events. When freestyle skiing first debuted as a demonstration sport in 1988, ski ballet—a bizarre and entrancing fusion of skiing and Jazzercise—was one of the events. Inexplicably, when freestyle became a full-fledged Olympic sport, ski ballet didn’t make the cut. Reverse this horrible decision, and watch the sport’s ranking soar!

WHAM Factor: 19/35. 7 for watchability—even though it’s imitative, it is still fun to watch; 2 for history, because you could cut freestyle skiing from the programme tomorrow and no one would care or notice; 6 for aesthetics; and 4 miscellaneous points, because it was once associated with ski ballet.

10. Curling

Curling is a Winter Olympic outlier. The competitors are often older than their Olympic brethren, and their athleticism is often less immediately apparent. It’s probably the most complicated Winter Olympic sport insofar as a casual viewer will not immediately be able to apprehend the rules or the scoring. (The mixed doubles curling event, added this year, is purportedly simpler, in the same way juggling 11 balls at once is purportedly simpler than juggling 12. You still have to know how to juggle in the first place!) It has only been consistently contested in the Olympics for a couple of decades, and yet feels like a holdover from a much older era. It is cerebral where the other winter sports are elemental. And yet its oddness is its primary virtue. I will watch curling over many other Winter Olympic sports precisely because it is so different and I do not understand what is happening. The games could use more weirdness.

WHAM Factor: 20/35. 8 watchability points; 3 history points; 4 aesthetic points, because for all of curling’s virtues, it is not particularly beautiful; and 5 out of 5 miscellaneous points, because there is nothing more miscellaneous than curling.

9. Biathlon

Like Nordic combined, biathlon is a mashup sport, combining cross-country skiing and riflery in one largely inexplicable package. Pierre de Coubertin hoped the games would promote world peace, in part by bringing current and future military officers together in sporting competition and sublimating their aggression on the playing fields. It didn’t really work that way, but biathlon—which has its origins in a defunct Olympic sport called military patrol—is a nice callback to Coubertin’s original ideals. Plus, guns.

WHAM Factor: 22/35. 6 for watchability, because while the sport might not retain your attention it will briefly startle you into thinking you might be under fire; 7 for history; 5 for aesthetics; and 4 miscellaneous points, because you’re going to want to tune in—in case one of these guys skis over to the luge track by mistake.

8. Bobsled

While I’m on record as believing Cool Runnings is a terrible movie, the sport of bobsled—or if you prefer, bobsleigh—owes a lot to that film’s director, Jon Turteltaub. (I cannot believe I didn’t have to look that up.) Cool Runnings is perhaps the only reason why bobsled, which might be even less fun to watch than luge or skeleton, ranks this high. The movie helped mythologize the sport to the point where casual viewers both know its ins and outs and dimly understand its history. The best Olympic sports are those whose histories are widely acknowledged and understood. Viewers want to be able to measure the sporting feats of the current generation against the accomplishments of their forebears. Also, there is something endearing about a sport that can sustain true amateur participation; the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team was but one of several hapless entrants into the field, and the Jamaicans were actually much better than the middle-age bobsledders from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Turteltaub! Call me! I’ve got your next movie for you!

WHAM Factor: 23/35. 6 for watchability—bobsled the sport is more watchable than Cool Runnings the movie, but not by very much; 8 for history; 5 for aesthetics; and 4 miscellaneous points for giving Lolo Jones something to do in the winter.

7. Short track speedskating

Now we’re getting into the upper echelon, and short track speedskating deserves its placement right at the bottom of the top tier. Short track, which has only been officially contested at the Olympics since 1992, ranks relatively low because it is relatively inessential, but that aside there’s really nothing not to like here. Short track competitors skate in groups, as opposed to the one-on-one races in regular speedskating. Put a whole bunch of speedskaters on a short track at high speeds, and what do you get? Crashes! A whole lot of falls and crashes, that’s what you get.

WHAM Factor: 25/35. 8 for watchability; 4 for history; 8 for aesthetics; and 5 miscellaneous points because short track is incredibly popular in South Korea, home of the Pyeongchang Olympics, and it’s only fair to show some love to a local favorite.

6. Snowboard

Snooty Winter Olympics purists might turn up their noses at snowboarding’s self-consciously “extreme” nature. In your face, purists! Snowboarding is a joy to watch. The tricks are exciting and difficult, the exuberance and party-heartiness the youthful competitors bring to their events is a delight. Snowboarder Shaun White—who is not down to party—is also one of the few Winter Olympians whose fame transcends the limits of both his sport and the broader games. Finally, the list of acceptable snowboard maneuvers includes beef carpaccio, chicken salad, and Korean bacon, making this the only sport whose most exciting moves can also be found in the dining hall at the Olympic village.

WHAM Factor: 28/35. 10 for watchability, because to watch snowboarding is to love snowboarding; 5 for history; 9 for aesthetics; and 4 miscellaneous points because snowboarders have a knack for flustering stodgy old journalists in post-race interviews. In your face, stodgy old journalists!

5. Ice hockey

Along with curling, ice hockey is the only traditional team sport in the Winter Olympics. It’s got a rich history—everyone has heard of the Miracle on Ice—and everyone basically knows how hockey is played. The chief problem ice hockey is facing at these Olympics is that the NHL declined to put its season on hold to allow its players to compete for their national teams. (I resent the NHL’s decision, but I also understand it.) To be honest, though, it isn’t that big of a problem: The competitors in Pyeongchang are all still really good hockey players, and I suspect they are all truly excited to have the opportunity to compete for their home countries. This should result in some excellent hockey.

WHAM Factor: 29/35. 7 for watchability; 10 for history; 7 for aesthetics; and 5 out of 5 miscellaneous points, because one of the goalies for Team Canada is also named Justin Peters. Look for us to switch places at some point during the Olympics!

4. Ski jumping

Ski jumping rules. Everyone thinks so—even notorious weirdo Werner Herzog, who made a film about ski jumping back in 1974. It is dangerous and exciting and aesthetically pleasing to watch humans voluntarily barrel down a steep, narrow ramp and launch themselves high into the air. The dream of wingless flight takes corporeal form when ski jumping is in session. But it narrowly misses the medal podium because I think the Olympics could survive without it. The sport is beautiful but marginal.

WHAM Factor: 30/35. 10 for watchability, because both ski jumping and Werner Herzog films are hypnotic and fascinating; 10 for aesthetics; 5 for history; and 5 miscellaneous points in recognition of Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, the best Winter Olympics tourist-athlete of all time.

3. Speedskating

If you took the best track events from the Summer Olympics and put them on ice, you’d get speedskating. Measuring speed across short-to-middle distances is, to me, what the games are and have always been about, and speedskating combines velocity, beauty, and athleticism in a sleek, skin-suited package. (The controversial Under Armour skating suits that some American skaters blamed for their poor showing at theSochi Games have been revamped to suck less than they allegedly did in 2014.) Unlike ski jumping, you couldn’t have a Winter Games without speedskating. It is a foundational sport and it well deserves its bronze medal.

WHAM Factor: 31/35. 9 for watchability, because while speedskating is a good skating sport it isn’t the best skating sport; 9 for aesthetics; 10 for history; and 5 miscellaneous points because of Shani Davis. I love Shani Davis.

2. Alpine skiing

Alpine skiing is the classic Winter Olympics sport. It is the only sport to dictate the location of the games, every single time. You could do the skating and sliding events in Tampa, Florida. You could do the cross-country events in Nebraska—it’s as cold and flat there as any other place. You could even build a snowboard halfpipe in a parking lot. But you need an honest-to-goodness mountain for Alpine skiing.
You can’t fake a mountain. (Yet.)

WHAM Factor: 33/35. 9 for watchability, because there are a lot of events and it can get a little old if we’re being honest; 10 for history; 9 for aesthetics; and 5 miscellaneous points for giving a platform to Prince Hubertus von Hohenlohe.

1. Figure skating

From I, Tonya to Blades of Glory, from flamboyance to sublimity, from staggering athleticism to icy artistry, from Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski to “Triple axel! Double toe loop! Beautifully landed!!!,” figure skating truly has it all.

WHAM Factor: 34/35. 10 for watchability; 10 for history; 10 for aesthetics; and 4 miscellaneous points because I’m a jerk and don’t want to give any sport a perfect score.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

•     The Winter Olympics Are the Best Olympics

•     How to Watch the Winter Olympics if You Don’t Have Cable

•     Everything You Need to Know About the Figure Skaters at the Pyeongchang Olympics