By Mark Lebetkin
The Winter Olympic program has never been a static thing. Many events have come and gone since the first Winter Games were held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. At least one sport, curling, has even come, then gone, then come back onto the Olympic roster.
It was the introduction of snowboarding, though, during the 1998 Nagano Olympics that really launched current round of growth in the Winter Olympic program. Ten new events were added to the 2002 Salt Lake City program, eight new events debuted in the 2006 Turin Olympics, and one (ski cross) in Vancouver in 2010.
And while most these additions had little to do with snowboarding, in many cases they reflected the same tendency to appeal to a younger, more action-oriented audience than in Olympics past. New events like team pursuit speed skating, ski cross and sprint distances in otherwise yawn-worthy cross country skiing -- to many TV viewers, anyway -- were an attempt to inject old sports with new energy.
But even compared with the recent past, 2014 in Sochi is going to be a bumper year for medals. A total of 98 events will be contested -- the most of any Winter Olympics in history -- and 12 of those are new to the program. Out of those 12, four new events are in snowboarding and four are ski events -- including slopestyle and halfpipe -- originally popularized for snowboard. This is no accident.
“Such events provide great entertainment for the spectators and add further youthful appeal to our already action-packed lineup of Olympic winter sports,” said IOC president Jacques Rogge when announcing the new events’ inclusion in July 2011.
In short, the IOC took a look at the popularity of the Winter X Games and took the hint.
This Winter X Games staple has skiers performing tricks on a course packed with features like ramps, rails and other jibs -- essentially a "skate park on snow," in the words of Sochi hopeful Tom Wallisch. Skiers are scored on the following criteria: the execution and style of their moves, the difficulty and risk of their program, variety, amplitude and progression.
X Games champ Nick Goepper, only 19, will be the one to watch in the men’s event, having clinched his Olympic berth in just the second of five qualifying events. On the women's side, freeskier Devin Logan, 20, has a good shot at medaling in both ski slopestyle and ski halfpipe.
In this timed mixed-gender event, each team comprises women's and men's singles sleds and a doubles sled, according to the U.S. Luge Association. All the sleds begin at the same starting point, but follow each other in sequence -- with the gates opening up for each sled after the previous sledder in the team reaches the end of the course and touches a pad overhanging the track. The U.S. relay team will be selected from those lugers with the best individual and doubles performances during the Olympics.
This event will take place on the same 635-meter course that’s being used for ski slopestyle, which includes three jib areas and three jumps. Two-time halfpipe gold medalist Shaun White is hoping to add a slopestyle medal to his Olympic trophy case -- if he makes the team. Although he dominated the event in the Winter X Games from 2003 to 2006, White hasn't medaled in slopestyle since 2009 in either the X Games or the Winter Dew Tour.
Snowboarders race to the finish line down parallel slalom courses with triangular flags in this new Olympic event. A more tightly spaced -- and hence more technical -- version of the equivalent giant slalom event, introduced to the Olympic program in 2002, this tournament-style competition will have boarders going head to head, beginning with a round of sixteen. Each matchup will consist of two runs, with boarders switching courses for the second run to cancel out any variation in the courses.
Like snowboard halfpipe -- a signature board event that’s been in the Olympics since 1998 -- the skiing version of this event involves doing tricks and aerials on a sloped pipe that's 180 meters long, 20 meters wide and 7 meters deep, according to the International Ski Federation. Performing tricks with names like "alley-oop flatspin 540 critical" and "switch leftside 720 Japan," skiers are judged on execution, difficulty, amplitude, variety and progression -- a measure of new and uncommon tricks or variations. Keep an eye out for freeskiers Maddie Bowman in the women’s event and David Wise in the men's, both of whom recently clinched a spot on the Olympic roster and are reigning X Games champs.
The inclusion of this event in the Winter Olympics was a long time coming for elite female ski jumpers, who had lobbied for its addition for more than a decade before it finally made it into the list in April 2011. Female jumpers had been told in the past that the event was medically inappropriate for women, according to non-profit Women's Ski Jumping USA. Until now, ski jumping was the only event -- besides Nordic combined, which includes cross country skiing and ski jumping -- not to allow women to participate in the Winter or Summer Games, according to the organization. The 19-year-old phenom Sarah Hendrickson, sidelined by an injury in August, will be the one to watch if she recovers in time to make the team. Another top contender is Lindsey Van, who won the event's first-ever gold at the 2009 world championships.
Biathlon -- a mixture of cross-country skiing and marksmanship—has roots in winter military warfare, according to the U.S. Biathlon team website. In the mixed relay event, a team of two women and two men race in sequence, making transitions in a handover zone. The women complete the first two legs on a 6km course and the two men finish on a 7.5km course. Each biathlete has two bouts of shooting -- one lying prone, and one standing, and must hit all five targets or else do a penalty loop for each target missed. The sport is typically dominated by Germany, Northern European countries, and former Soviet republics.
Like the gymnastics team competition, this event provides an opportunity for participating countries to show off their prowess in a single sport across disciplines—and genders. Each team has one male skater, one female skater, one skating pair and one ice dance couple. Points are awarded according to placement in each discipline—one point for 10th place and 10 points for first -- and tallied at the end; the highest score wins. The event made its quasi-Olympic debut in 2012 at the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria. The U.S. is expected to be a strong contender for the gold with world-champion ice dancing duo Meryl Davis and Charlie White (pictured) likely to be on the team.
For the complete list of the New Olympic Sports To Debut In Sochi, go to TheActiveTimes.com.
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