Technically, there are 15 sports on the docket of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But if you think about it—like, really think about it—they all revolve around one single, shared objective.
Unlike the Summer Olympics sports, which take place on a variety of substances (water, sand, hardwood floors) and require athletes to complete a diverse range of bodily tasks, winter Olympians essentially have one job: Slip around on frozen surfaces, and try not to fall.
Sure, the athletes may also be trying to jump far, achieve high speeds, or hit pucks into nets, but the primary challenge they face is doing those things on slippery surfaces that make it hard to stay upright or move their bodies or specific objects—a sled, a curling stone—in a deliberate direction. The slipperiness is also what makes the sports fun to watch. It makes it possible for athletes to do things they wouldn’t be able to do on grass or concrete or a gym mat, like hurtle down a track at 90 miles per hour or fall from 20 feet in the air without shattering any bones.
So, yes, every winter sport is the basically the same thing: people battling over who can best maneuver on slippery terrain. And over the past two weeks, as I’ve watched the athletes slip ’n’ slide around Beijing, one big question has been nagging at me. The medal ceremonies tell us which athletes are the greatest at managing and directing their slipping. But which of these slippery sports is the slipperiest?
Snow sports like skiing and snowboarding produced the most injuries during the last Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. It’s really easy to fall on snow! Especially when you are flying downhill on it with your feet strapped to one little slidey board or two even littler slidey boards. However, I immediately ruled out the snow sports as possible slippery front-runners, since several scientific and humiliating encounters with unshoveled sidewalks have taught me that ice is more slippery than snow.
But the question of which ice sport is the slipperiest is more complicated than you might think, because “ice” contains multitudes. “Ice” (are those scare quotes getting my point across?) is not a single object with set characteristics that always feels and functions the same way. It’s a category of matter with a whole range of temperatures, textures, dimensions, and densities that affect how objects slip around on it. It’s less “hot dog bun” and more “bread.” Every ice sport at the Olympics requires a different kind of ice.
Figure skaters compete on the softest and warmest ice. (If you’re surprised that ice can be soft and warm, you’ve been taken in by harmful stereotypes that limit the horizons of what ice believes it can be. Educate yourself.) A figure skater’s blades need to dig into the ice to propel a human body into the air, so super-hard stuff won’t do. Good figure skating ice is just below freezing, in the mid-to-high 20s degrees Fahrenheit. If the ice is too cold and, thus, hard, skaters could also suffer ankle injuries when they land. But softer ice means more friction and slower skating, so figure skating events are not the slipperiest.
Short track speedskating ice is slightly colder than figure skating ice, which allows for greater speeds. Hockey ice is usually a little colder and slipperier than that, because it needs to be hard enough for players to make quick turns and stops without causing too much damage to the ice.
The slipperiest skating ice is used for long track speedskating, in which athletes whiz around a rink on ice as cold as 16 degrees Fahrenheit. That ice is so hard, and the speedskating blades so thin—just about 1 millimeter!—that the laws of friction that bind the rest of us to a slow, shuffling existence simply melt away.
OK, so speedskating ice is technically the slipperiest ice of all the Olympic ices. But is it the slipperiest sport? Maybe not. Curling boasts some of the weirdest ice in cold-weather athletics, and its idiosyncrasies could make it a dark horse contender for the slipperiest sport.
Unlike all the other ices in Beijing, curling ice is not flat—if it were, the stone would skid to a halt long before it reached the bullseye. Instead of spraying or pouring a level layer of water onto concrete, curling ice technicians engage in a sexually euphemistic–sounding activity known as “pebbling.” They pebble the ice with a device called a pebbler, which consists of a backpack full of water, a hose, and a spigot called a pebblehead. The pebblehead of the pebbler sprays “pebbles” of hot water onto the ice, thereby pebbling it. Make sense?
Pebbled ice is textured, which would seem to make it less slippery. But when the curling stone runs across the frozen pebbles, the pebbles melt, creating a layer of water “as thin as a bubble’s skin” that buoys the stone across the ice. There’s some unsolved mystery in the power of the pebbles—scientists are still not quite clear on why a curling stone moves the way it does—but they may also be responsible for the stone’s titular curl; the curler you see sweeping the ice in front of the stone is brushing the pebbles to shift the spin of the stone.
The slippery, pebbly magic of the curling sheet is potent enough to make a 44-pound stone float across the ice with the effortless grace of a ballerina. But can such elegant slipperiness compete with the slippery spirals of a sliding track? Luge, skeleton, and bobsled events usually take place on ice frozen to about 23 degrees, which is medium slippery, as far as I know. (Though, apparently, ice on the track can get “sticky” if it’s too cold.) Sure, it’s not as hard and cold as long track speedskating ice, but it has the distinct slippery benefit of a downhill incline. These are by far the fastest sports in the Winter Olympics, with luge in the lead, a decent sign that they are also the slipperiest. I’m going to say that luge is the most slippery of the three sliding sports, and not just because it’s the speediest: Bobsleds are sturdier than any other skate or sled, and riding down the track headfirst, as athletes do in skeleton races, seems like it would offer a greater sense of control.
In my mind, luge, curling, and speedskating were all tied for slipperiest winter sport—until I imagined actually interacting with any of the surfaces. Walking across a curling sheet or speedskating rink while maintaining some measure of dignity would be difficult, but not impossible. Gun to my head, could I make it to the bottom of Beijing’s Flying Snow Dragon, with its sloping ice walls and 18 percent grade, without busting my tailbone, cracking open my skull, and pebbling the sides of the track with my brain matter? No, I could not. Luge wins the slippery gold!