Vermont-based writer Christian Camerota will be writing about the Sochi Olympics throughout the Games. Follow his coverage.
The 2014 Winter Olympics will be a series of firsts.
It will be the first time the Russian Federation, formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, has hosted an Olympics (the last Olympics held in any part of Russia was the 1980 Summer games in Moscow). It is on track to be the priciest Olympics in history, with projected costs currently around $51 billion (that’s just shy of one Warren Buffet, or about three Mark Zuckerbergs). By comparison, China spent an estimated $40+ billion on the 2010 games and the last Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, came in around $8.2 billion.
The lead-up to February’s Games marked the first time the Olympic torch made it into space, traveled to the bottom of the world’s deepest lake, and even made it to the North Pole, and will arrive in Sochi after its almost 40,000-mile journey early next month with more than a few stories to tell.
Consider all those firsts practice runs for the real Sochi novelties: the 12 new winter sporting events debuting in 2014.
A few of the events are new groupings of old staples: the biathlon mixed relay, the figure skating team event, the team snowboard halfpipe, and the mixed luge team relay. They should make for more interesting overall medal count competitions and should bond each country’s athletes like never before, since team competitions will be added to historically individual sports like figure skating.
Sochi will welcome several other events to the Olympics for the first time in any format, and will account for many of the most spectacular competitions and tricks the 2014 winter contest has to offer. Let’s take a practice run through some of those new gates.
Women’s Ski Jumping
It’s been more than 150 years since the first woman ski jumper, Ingrid Olavsdottir Vestby, pioneered the sport, wearing a skirt and traveling about 20 feet. In 2014, 30 women will be airborne for much longer and farther than that as, finally, women’s ski jumping is officially an Olympic event. While they won’t compete on the larger HS140M hill or in the team event, the women will launch themselves off the same short course, a 106-meter hill, as the men and be judged on the same criteria: five judges, two jumps, with points awarded for distance and style. The highest and lowest judges’ scores will be tossed as the contestants willfully make themselves airborne from a starting height of 756M and down and off a 106M hill. Distance points are based on a 95-meter mark, with two points added for every meter past that distance and two points subtracted for every meter below it. Style marks are on a 20-point scale, and the woman with the highest aggregate score wins. If you see brightly-colored, human-shaped forms hurtling through the air at 50-60mph at the Russki Gorki Jumping Center on February 11, that’s the women’s ski jumping competition. The women likely to travel the farthest? Sara Takanashi (Japan), Irina Avvakumova (Russia) and Carina Vogt (Germany) are the world’s top three jumpers, with Jessica Jerome the highest-ranked U.S. woman in 12th place.
Figure Skating Team
Always a focal point of any Winter Olympics, figure skating will take on a new dimension in Sochi with the addition of the team competition. This year’s ice acrobatics events are so numerous they will actually begin before the opening ceremonies, with the team competitions slated for February 6, 8 and 9 (opening ceremonies are on the 7th). Ten teams will compete, with six skaters per team, including one woman, one man, one pair and one ice dancing team. All ten teams will perform a short program and be judged, per usual, on a scoring mix of a technical score plus a presentation score. Teams will receive points for their aggregate placement (10 points for first place, 9 points for second, and so on). The top five teams from the short programs will progress to the free skate/dance and compete under the same criteria, and the highest team total will crown the winner. The events will take place at the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi proper. Canada leads the pack with 17 athlete spots, followed by the U.S. and Russia at 15 apiece, and rounded out by Germany, Italy, France and Japan with ten or more. On the women’s side, the U.S. will look to 22-year-old Ashley Wagner (despite her recent struggles at the U.S. championships) and 18-year-old Gracie Gold to lead them to gold, while on the men’s side the U.S. is banking on U.S. national title holder Jeremy Abbott, 28, and 19-year-old upstart Jason Brown, whose blistering performance at the same championships vaulted him onto the team. Ice dancing team Charlie White and Meryl Davis, 2010 Olympic silver medalists in Vancouver, will also be a strong asset.
Snowboard Parallel Slalom
Picture a drag race. Now picture it atop a snowboard and heading down a 320-meter ice-covered course with an 85-meter vertical drop and you’ve got snowboard parallel slalom. Both men’s and women’s fields will feature 32 riders pointing it through a qualifying round, and the leaders will progress to a single final round. The event will be conducted in a knockout format with rounds of 16 competitors racing head-to-head. Each showdown has two runs, where each contestant will take one turn on each side of the course. The loser of the first run has to start the next run with whatever time disadvantage they accumulated, and the first rider to cross the finish line on the second run wins. The turns and burns will take place at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 22.
Consider this the X Games contribution to the Sochi Olympics, where 30 male skiers and 24 female skiers will compete through two phases: a qualification round and a final round featuring two runs per phase. Scoring will be determined by each contestant’s best run, with the top 12 skiers in each group advancing to the final. The course, located about 20 miles from Sochi, is the 234M Rosa Khutor Extreme Park’s halfpipe. Skiers will be judged on their execution, and combinations of amplitude and variety, and difficulty and use of the pipe. The judges’ scores will be averaged and, obviously, the highest score wins. David Wise and Maddie Bowman will lead the U.S. contingent, coming off victories at the U.S. Grand Prix at Breckenridge in mid-January. Frenchman Kevin Rolland, a two-time Winter X Games champ, and Japan’s Ayana Onozuka and Amy Sheehan of Australia will give them a run for their money on February 18 and 20.
Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle
A combination of big air and inventive jibbing, the ski and snowboard slopestyle events should please both freeriders and park junkies. Both events will feature 30 men and 24 women competitors spinning and hucking their way across three jib areas and three jumps. Skiers will careen down a 565M course across two phases (two runs per phase) where their best run (a combination of points based on execution, style, variety, difficulty and progression) counts and the top 12 skiers advance to the final. Riders will tackle a slightly longer 635M course, featuring a 147M vertical drop, scored similarly and featuring three phases (a qualifier, a semifinal and a final). Two-plank enthusiasts should tune in on February 11 and 13, while their one-plank counterparts will take to the hill on February 6, 8, and 9.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Luge Team Relay
Twelve nations will qualify for the insanity that is the luge team relay, with four members per team across men’s singles, women’s singles, and doubles (either men, women, or mixed) competing over a 1384M course that features a 125M vertical drop and 16 curves, not to mention speeds topping out around 90mph. Three sleds will race in any order with one run each, and competitors will hit a touch-sensitive pad to open the start gate for their teammates. The team with the fastest combined time wins, and the events will be held at the Sanki Sliding Centre on February 13. Two Germans and two Italians lead the men’s individual world cup standings (Chris Mazdzer of the U.S. sits in 6th place), and two German and Italian teams also sit atop the men’s doubles world cup standings, separated by an Austrian team (the U.S. pair of Matthew Mortensen and Preston Griffali sit 10th). On the women’s side, four of the top five individual world cup leaders are from Germany, with Americans Erin Hamlin and Kate Hansen at sixth and seventh, respectively.
Biathlon Mixed Relay
A mix of cross-country skiing and target practice, 19 nations will compete in the mixed relay with four athletes per team. The competition will begin with two women’s legs over a 6km loop, followed by two men’s legs over a 7.5km loop. Scoring will be against the clock, with two bouts of shooting per loop (one standing, one prone) and five targets per bout. Competitors must hit five targets per bout or they will be assessed an additional 150M loop penalty (sadly, they don’t get to shoot any extra targets). The winning team will have the fastest aggregate time. All biathlon events will be held at the Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Centre on February 19. Norway, a perennial top competitor and current leader in the Biathlon World Cup standings, leads the pack of favorites, followed by the French and German teams.
Events that didn’t make the cut? Team alpine skiing, ski-mountaineering, ski-orienteering, and winter triathlon. Though with 98 events across 15 disciplines and in 7 sports, spectators should have more than enough to choose from.
You can use the official Sochi spectator guide to help you get around. There’s just one catch: you have to learn Russian first. And should you choose to head all the way to Sochi, be aware that being a part of history won’t come cheap. A good seat at the Opening Ceremonies, for instance, could run you 50,000 Rubles or about $1,500. Of course, you could always attend a less expensive event, like the Skeleton prelims, for about 20 bucks.