Photograph by George F. Mobley
National Geographic Education
The Winter Olympic Games began in 1924. They are held every four years in a different place around the world. In 2010, the Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, from February 12–28. The next Winter Olympics, in 2014, will be held in Sochi, Russia.
The Winter Olympics feature sports in which athletes compete on ice or snow. Athletes from more than 80 countries will compete in 15 different sports. There are events for individuals and for teams of two or more people.
Alpine Skiing (Site: Whistler Creekside)
People have been skiing in the European Alps for at least 150 years. Until the early 1900s, they had to climb up a slope to ski down it! When ski lifts were developed to take people up the slope, the sport became more popular.
Alpine skiing has been a sport in the Olympics since 1936. Racers can reach speeds of more than 130 kilometers (81 miles) an hour! They must pass through a series of gates as they race down the slope. For men, the drop of the slope is between 180 meters (590.5 feet) and 1,100 meters (3,608.9 feet), depending on the event. For women, the drop is between 140 meters (459.3 feet) and 800 meters (2,624.7 feet).
Biathlon (Site: Whistler Olympic Park)
The word “biathlon” comes from the Greek word for “two tests.” The biathlon combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. The combination of hunting and skiing started as early as 2000 BCE, but not as a sport. It was a way for people in northern Europe to hunt for food. In the mid-16th century, Scandinavian armies began to use skis to travel quickly on snow to defend against their enemies.
The biathlon became an Olympic sport for men in 1960. Women began competing in 1992. The objective is to be the fastest to complete the course, skiing to the shooting range and hitting as many targets as possible.
Bobsleigh (Site: The Whistler Sliding Centre)
People have been using sleds for travel and fun for about 700 years. Racing sleds on steep and twisted tracks started about 150 years ago when British tourists began to sled on the snow-covered roads of the Alps.
Four-man bobsleigh teams competed in the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. The two-man format started in 1932. There is no four-person bobsleigh race for women, but the two-person format began in 2002. For both men and women, the racers start by pushing the sleigh for about 50 meters (164 feet). Then they jump on the sleigh and ride it while seated. The driver steers and the brakeman stops the sled at the end of the run.
Cross-Country Skiing (Site: Whistler Olympic Park)
Using wooden planks strapped to the feet has helped people travel quickly on snow for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. The entire Swedish army was using skis by 1500. As early as 1767, the Norwegian army was having cross-country skiing competitions. The first event for civilians was held in Norway in 1843.
Cross-country skiing races for men were part of the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. Events for women began in 1952. Racers compete individually and in teams using one of two basic techniques. In classic technique, athletes ski through the snow in tracks made by machines. In free technique, skiers use shorter skis and move forward by pushing off the skis’ edges, similar to speed skating. Free technique became a separate Olympic sport in 1988.
Curling (Site: Vancouver Olympic Centre)
The sport of curling is more than 500 years old. It involves groups of people sliding stones across frozen water, such as a pond. Today, curling athletes compete on an ice rink. The earliest written record of curling dates to 1541 in Scotland.
Men competed in curling at the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. However, curling was not part of the Olympics again until 1998. Since then, there have been men’s and women’s tournaments. Four-person teams take turns pushing 19.1-kilogram (42.1-pound) stones toward a series of rings painted on the floor. Team members sweep the ice in front of each stone to control its speed and direction, known as its “curl.” The goal is to get the stones as close to the center of the rings as possible.
Figure Skating (Site: Pacific Coliseum)
Until the 1860s, figure skating concentrated largely on performing certain elements, such as a figure eight, several times in exactly the same way. Then, Jackson Haines, an American skater in Vienna, Austria, changed everything. He brought in musicians to play on the ice while he skated. He wore interesting costumes. He performed carefully choreographed routines that included exciting new moves, such as spins.
Figure skating first appeared in the Olympics in 1908. That was 16 years before the first Olympic Winter Games, so it was originally part of the Summer Games! (Indoor ice rinks can be kept cold even when the weather is hot.) There were events for pairs and singles, just as there are today. The ice dancing competition began in 1976. In all figure skating events, judges give the performers scores on technical and presentation abilities, and those with the highest scores win.
Freestyle Skiing (Site: Cypress Mountain)
A mix of alpine skiing and acrobatics, freestyle skiing began in the 1960s. At that time, young Americans sought social change and freedom of expression. This led to exciting new skiing techniques. The first competition was held in New Hampshire in 1966.
Freestyle moguls became an Olympic medal sport in 1992. (A mogul is a small hill.) Freestyle aerials (jumps) were added in 1994. Ski cross, an event where four skiers compete at once, will make its Olympic debut in 2010.
Ice Hockey (Site: Canada Hockey Place and UBC Thunderbird Arena)
The word “hockey” comes from the French word for “stick.” The British most likely brought the game to North America in the 1600s or 1700s, using sticks to propel a snowball on the ice instead of a puck. In 1879, students at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, developed the first known set of hockey rules and organized competitions.
Men's ice hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1920 Summer Games. It was moved to the Winter Games in 1924. Women’s ice hockey debuted in 1998. For both men and women, no more than six players may be on the ice while play is in progress. Each team tries to score as many goals as possible by getting the puck (a hard black rubber disc) past the other team’s goaltender and into the net.
Luge (Site: The Whistler Sliding Centre)
The word “luge” (pronounced “looj”) comes from the French word for “sled.” On February 12, 1883, an event called “The Great International Sled Race” was held in Switzerland. A Swiss man and an Australian man tied for first place. They slid down a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) track in 9 minutes and 15 seconds.
Luge races have grown much faster over the years. With the use of refrigerated tracks and aerodynamic equipment, speeds now regularly reach 140 kilometers (87 miles) an hour or more. Luge for men, women, and doubles debuted at the 1964 Olympics. Racers use open fiberglass sleds. (Bobsleighs are partially closed.) To get started, athletes pull on fixed handles in the ice and push themselves along with spiked gloves. Then they lie down on their backs with their feet pointed toward the finish line. Athletes use their legs and shoulders to steer. To brake, they sit up, put down their feet and pull up on the blades on the bottom of the sled, called sled runners.
Nordic Combined (Site: Whistler Olympic Park)
In the 1800s, skiers throughout Norway gathered each winter for a series of ski carnivals. These consisted of athletic competitions combined with entertainment. Considered the best of all the carnival athletes, a small group specialized in both cross-country skiing and ski jumping. The Nordic combined event combines these two sports.
Men have competed in Nordic combined individual events since the first Olympic Winter Games in 1924. The team event was introduced in 1988, and the sprint event in 2002.
Short Track Speed Skating (Site: Pacific Coliseum)
Speed skating dates back to 13th century Holland. Short track speed skating originated in 1905 in Canada and the United States. It is called “short track” because the oval skaters race around is 111.1 meters (364.6 feet) in diameter. “Long track” speed skating uses a 400-meter oval. The first known competition took place in 1909.
In 1988, short track speed skating for men and women, individuals and teams, was a demonstration event at the Olympic Winter Games. In 1992, it was included as a full medal event. Skaters race each other, not the clock, as they go around the track, situated in an indoor hockey rink. Speed skating competitions do not take place outside because the wind can slow the skaters down! The corners are tight, which makes it difficult for skaters to maintain control.
Skeleton (Site: Whistler Sliding Centre)
This sport got its name from the sled used, which resembles a human skeleton. Unlike luge, where athletes ride on their backs with their feet first, in skeleton, they lie on their stomachs with their heads first.
Men competed in skeleton at the 1928 and 1948 Olympic Winter Games. It was reintroduced in 2002, becoming a permanent Olympic sport for individual men and women. To start, sliders grasp the handles on the sides of the sled, run as fast as they can for approximately 50 meters (164 feet), then dive onto the sled. To steer, they shift their bodies very slightly.
Ski Jumping (Site: Whistler Olympic Park)
The first known ski jumper was a Norwegian lieutenant. In 1809, he launched himself 9.5 meters (31.2 feet) in the air before an audience of other soldiers. By 1862, ski jumpers were doing much larger jumps, going longer distances and competing in official contests.
Men’s ski jumping has been part of the Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. The large hill competition was added in 1964. Competitors are evaluated by a jury on distance and style.
Snowboarding (Site: Cypress Mountain)
One of the fastest growing sports, snowboarding combines elements of surfing, skateboarding, and skiing. The first official snowboard competition was held in the U.S. state of Colorado in 1981.
Two snowboard events—halfpipe and individual giant slalom—were introduced at the 1998 Winter Games. In 2002, parallel giant slalom replaced individual giant slalom. Snowcross was introduced in 2006. In halfpipe, riders are judged on the height and style of their tricks. In parallel giant slalom, two snowboarders race down a course through a series of gates. In snowcross, short for snowboard cross, four athletes race down a course over rolling terrain and a series of jumps and ramps.
Speed Skating (Site: Richmond Olympic Oval)
People were using iron skates on wooden shoe soles to travel on the canals of Holland as early as the 13th century. Competitive racing began in 1676. The Dutch shared the concept of speed skating with other Europeans in the early 19th century.
Speed skating has been included in the Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. Women’s speed skating was a demonstration event at the 1932 Games. It became a full medal event in 1960. Individuals and teams race each other. Speed skating is the fastest human-powered, non-mechanical aided sport in the world. Skaters can reach speeds of more than 60 kilometers (37 miles) an hour.
Winter Olympic Sports Gallery
See pictures of Winter Olympic events and a map of the 2010 games in Vancouver.
Switzerland's Olympic Totem Pole
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Olympic Totem Pole Gallery
Follow the creation of the Olympic Totem Pole, from carving in Canada to display in Switzerland.