The Winter Olympics Lowdown

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The Winter Olympics Lowdown

by: Gil Coombe | .
groovekorea.com | .
published: February 09, 2018
Okay, full disclosure: I hate snow. I hate ice. I hate sleet, hail, blizzards. In fact, I hate the cold in general. So when I was tasked with writing this guide to the three most popular events at the Winter Olympics, it felt a little bit like asking a mouse to write about the best breeds of cat, or a Cholla native to wax lyrical on the best Kyongsang has to offer (Korean regional stereotypes, amirite?). But desperate magazine editors call for desperate measures, and here I am, about to give you an overview of three sports I know nothing about and about which I previously cared even less.
 
But then I thought: who is my audience here, really? Those who actually follow these sports will not be picking up Groove to get the inside running on form or to learn more about tactics or the latest equipment or whatever it is that fans of these events look up. (If this sounds like you, I’m afraid to tell you that you have been horribly mislead and you should quickly move onto the next article and forget you were ever here. Go now.) Instead, I’m probably currently talking to someone whose phone died at a bus station or a friend/relative of one of the writers (Hi, Mum!) or an enthusiastic English learner who is sadly mistaken about the fundamental grammatical soundness of these pages. Whoever you are, you are probably not a winter sports expert.
 
Picture this, though: you are in a bar with some mates deep in the bowels of winter, and they are showing something from the Olympics on the TV. Wouldn’t it be nice to pretend to your friends that you are smart and knowledgeable about something for once (or if you really are smart–or if your friends are particularly dumb – to confirm your intelligence and/or their ignorance) by talking about whatever cold and weird thing is happening on the screen?
 
But being knowledgeable is hard work and that’s where I come in. I’m going to do all the legwork for you, providing a nice, neat beginner’s guide to three popular winter sports so that you can wow the people around you with your understanding of the intricacies behind these winter mainstays, which are bizarrely enjoyed by millions around the world. I will reiterate: I’m not an expert on any of these sports. So any inaccuracies you find are the fault of whatever source I stole the information from, not me.
 
Ice Hockey
 
 
 
Yes, I know enough to know that North Americans will be perturbed that I use the term “ice hockey” rather than just plain old “hockey,” but to me, “hockey” has always been and always will be “field hockey,” and this is just something North Americans will have to live with for however long it takes them to finish this article and forget I exist.
 
What is it?
 
Well, from an outsider looking in, ice hockey often seems to resemble what would happen if the members of Fight Club got drunk and tried to invent a sport, but my co-worker, who is a massive Boston Bruins fan, has managed to convince me that there are in fact tactics and intricacies to the play that make it an exciting sport to follow. That is not to say I have any idea what those might be (this is a beginner’s guide, after all), but I doubt he sits in front of his computer shouting various hockey related terminology (Boarding! Icing! Major penalty! Ah, the Bruins suck!) just to mess with me.
 
But here are the basics. Two teams of six–a goaltender and (typically, though not mandatory) two defencemen and three forwards–attempt to put the puck into the opposition goal. A quick look at Wikipedia will tell you there are a lot of rules to be aware of (as with most North American sports, the idea seems to be to take a simple sport and then regulate the hell out of it). But the following four are most pertinent: (a) players are allowed to bodycheck opposition players into the boards, within reason, (b) penalties require the guilty player to leave the ice for a certain period of time and his team to play short-handed during the resulting power play, (c) players are not allowed to shoot the puck all the way across the centerline and their opponents goal line without it being touched in between–this is called icing, and it results in the play stopping and a faceoff in the offending team’s zone (icing is allowed for teams that are playing shorthanded, however), and (d) substitutions are allowed to be made during play, meaning you will often see two or three players skate off and be replaced while the puck is still zipping around somewhere. Ice hockey has been in the Olympics for almost 100 years (since 1920) and has taken on greater prominence since NHL players started being allowed to take part in 1998. Coincidentally, 1998 was also the year that women’s ice hockey made its debut in the Olympic arena.
 
Who should I bet on? 
 
On the men’s side of the draw, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, United States, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Norway, and South Korea as the host country have all qualified for the Olympics. Sweden are the reigning IIHF World Championship Champions after beating Canada in the final earlier this year. So they would have seemed like your two safest bets. However, a complicating factor is that the NHL has actually refused to allow their players to participate this time because of a disagreement with the IOC over who would pay for travel, insurance and lodging, and both of these teams (and of course the U.S.) will be heavily affected. This may have opened the door for Russia, which has probably the second strongest domestic league, to dominate the competition. But then the IOC went and banned Russia from these Games for doping, and now things are even more hazy, with the Russian hockey league considering pulling its players (Russian or otherwise) out of the games.
 
For the women, things are a little more clear cut. Given that the U.S. and Canada have squared off in the final of every single IIHF World Championship since 1998 (Canada hold a 10-8 lead), toss a coin and pick your winner from one of those two. The other teams are ultimately making up the numbers. Though Finland, as third place getters in the 2017 IIHF World Championship, will be determined to prove that this is not the case.
 
Is there an underdog I can support?
 
In both the men’s and women’s competition, the underdog to support has to be the Korean national sides, who are ranked 21st and 22nd in the world, respectively. This is the first time they have qualified for the Olympics and as such are going to do well to just remain competitive. The men’s team have never even played any of the top sides before, and the only nations that they have played more than 10 times and have a winning record against are Australia and Spain, two countries not especially well-known for snow. They even have a losing record against North Korea. Underdogs don’t get much more underdog than that.
 
Where and when can I watch it at Pyeongchang?
 
The ice hockey is split between the Gangneung Hockey Centre and Kwandong Hockey Centre in Pyeongchang. The women’s competition starts on February 10, with the final on February 22 at 1:10 pm, and the men’s competition starts on February 14, with the final on February 25 at 1:10 pm.
 
Recommended homework: Watch the Kurt Russell true story Miracle, because without its NHL players, the U.S. is going to need it.
 
Figure Skating
 
 
Figure Skating – ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating NHK Trophy – Ladies Ceremony – Osaka, Japan – November 11, 2017 – Winner Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia celebrates during the victory ceremony. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon
 
 
Rhythm gymnastics. Synchronized swimming. Diving. Tomatoes. What do these have in common? That’s right: this is a list of things that aren’t sports. Another item that belongs on this list is figure skating, but I’m going to pretend that this isn’t the case because it is popular enough that feigning knowledge about it may be to your benefit somehow. To be fair, figure skating is the oldest event at the Winter Olympics, having first been introduced at London in 1908, so who am I to argue tradition?
 
What is it?
 
There are five separate events at the Games: (1) women’s single free skating, (2) men’s single free skating, (3) pairs free skating, (4) ice dance, and (5) the team event which combines the previous three disciplines. I guess the only real question that arises here is what the difference between free skating and ice dance is. Well, fear not, the internet has the answer, and I have transcribed that answer onto this page in the interests of furthering your education. (Though I guess you could have just googled it yourself. I mean, why didn’t you google it yourself?). Ice dance is a pairs event that consists of a short dance and a free dance and the two skaters cannot be apart from each other for more than five seconds. Free skating requires more acrobatic manoeuvres like jumps and lifts and spins and the like. Another difference is that ice dance requires movement to the beat of the accompanying music, whereas free skating tends to follow the melody of the music. So there you go.
 
Who should I bet on?
 
On the women’s side of the draw, the obvious standout is 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva from Russia. She is the reigning world champion and has won the World Championships, European Championships, and Grand Prix Finals twice each. She is a clear gold medal favorite…but the thing is, she might not even be coming. Yes, it is that pesky doping ban again. Individual Russian athletes will be allowed to compete as neutrals if they want to take part in the games, but Russia is contemplating whether to completely boycott the Games and thus prevent its athletes from making the trip, neutral or not. By the time you read this, a decision probably will have already been made. If Medvedeva stays at home, then take a look at possibly Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada, who was runner up to Medvedeva at this year’s World Championships.
 
For the men, the stand out at the moment is Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion and current World Champion from Japan. However, he injured himself in early November after falling at practice, so he may be somewhat rusty come the big event. In that case, don’t look past fellow countryman Shoma Uno, runner-up to Hanyu at the World Championships and winner at the Asian Winter Games this year. Another option is Javier Fernandez from Spain, World Champion in 2015 and 2016. I didn’t even know Spain did anything else other than play soccer.
 
Is there an underdog I can support?
 
Scratching around figure skating websites, there are so many choices for potential underdogs (and it is all complicated by the fact that a lot of countries haven’t even selected who is going to compete yet) that I was all a little bit lost. So I’m going to suggest Carolina Kostner from Italy and Wakaba Higuchi from Japan, simply because Kostner is 30, ancient by figure skating standards, and Higuchi is 16 and just starting out. I like symmetry.
 
Where and when can I watch it at Pyeongchang?
 
The figure skating competitions are held in the Gangneung Ice Arena on the following dates:
 
February 12: Team event (10 a.m.)
 
February  15: Pairs free skating (10:30 a.m.)
 
February  17: Men’s single free skating (10 a.m.)
 
February  20: Ice dance free dance (10 a.m.)
 
February  23: Women’s single free skating (10 a.m.)
 
In addition to the competitions, there is a figure skating gala exhibition on February  25 at 9:30 a.m.
 
Recommended homework: Keep on the lookout for the movie I, Tonya, which tells the true story of the one time figure skating got interesting. Or go to YouTube and watch old school figure skating from Katarina Witt or Torvill and Dean.
 
Snowboarding
 
 
Bursting on the scene last year with early results at the Dew Tour and following up with an X Games Silver medal, Kim is the new face of women’s professional pipe riding and will be one to watch for years to come. We caught up with her on a training day at Copper Mountain, CO. ©Brett Wilhelm/ESPN
 
In other words, sliding and falling with style. To be fair, almost all of the people I know who are into snowboarding are the chillest, most approachable people in the world (skiers on the other hand…). So I often pretend to care about this discipline more than I actually do because I don’t want to disappoint them with my cynicism and lack of interest in walking up a hill just to fall down it again.
 
What is it?
 
There are five separate events for snowboarding, each with men’s and women’s competitions: (1) slopestyle = obstacle course scored on tricks and height of jumps, (2) halfpipe = sliding from one side of a half-circle to the other, again being scored on tricks, (3) snowboard cross (also known as boardercross) = straight race between four to six snowboarders to the bottom of the same course, (4) parallel giant slalom = head-to-head race between two snowboarders on side-by-side courses, and (5) big air = a big ramp, a big jump, and big points for tricks. They are all pretty evenly spread out through the Games, so you’ll almost always have some snowboarding thrills to look forward to each day.
 
Who should I bet on?
 
If I may play my Southern Hemisphere solidarity card for a second, allow me to direct your attention to Scotty James. The 23-year-old Australian is currently the reigning champion of three of the four biggest halfpipe competitions–and he will be gunning to add the fourth at the Olympics. He didn’t have the best of times at the Winter Games in 2014, so he is hoping to make amends this time out. Also, look out for Japan’s Ayumu Hirano; the 19-year-old finished runner-up at the Sochi Games in the halfpipe, so he’ll be looking to go one better in Pyeongchang.
 
Of more interest to the home crowd will be Chloe Kim, the American snowboarder of Korean parents who will come to Pyeongchang as the “Future of Women’s Snowboarding” and who just may well be the favorite to take out the halfpipe crown. Kim was too young for the previous Winter Games, but having turned 17 this year (yes, we are old and the relentless march of time will continue to grind us down, make no mistake), she will be aiming to further a career that has seen her become the only woman to ever land back-to-back 1080s and score a perfect 100 at an X Games (at which she has three golds already, the first person under the age of 16 ever to do so).
 
Is there an underdog I can support?
 
Check out Mark McMorris from Canada. He broke his rib 12 days prior to the Sochi Games, powered through, and won a bronze in the big air competition. Then he broke his right femur in 2016 in a big air crash. Hazard of the trade, you say, no big deal. He’ll have to do more than that to earn my sentimental support. Fast forward to March 2017: goes backcountry snowboarding, comes back with a broken jaw and left arm, ruptured spleen, pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung. If he makes it to Pyeongchang (who knows what else fate has in store for him; it seems fate is holding a grudge), this man deserves your support, by God!
  
Where and when can I watch it at Pyeongchang?
 
Phoenix Snow Park hosts the following events:
 
February 11: Men’s slopestyle finals (10 a.m.)
 
February 12: Women’s slopestyle finals (10 a.m.)
 
February 13: Women’s halfpipe finals (10 a.m.)
 
February 14: Men’s halfpipe finals (10:30 a.m.)
 
February 15: Men’s snowboard cross finals (1:30 p.m.)
 
February 16: Women’s snowboard cross finals (12:15 p.m.)
 
February 24: Women’s and men’s parallel giant slalom finals (12:00 p.m.)
 
The Aplensia Ski Jumping Centre has the women’s big air finals on February 23 at 9:30 a.m. and the men’s on February 24 at 10 a.m.
 
Recommended homework: Go snowboarding yourself, ya lazy bum!
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