Every four years the Winter Olympics rolls around to remind me that A) there are so many important Winter Olympic sports, and B) I know virtually nothing any of them. And I know for a fact, I'm not alone, I bet most people don't know what the difference is between the Olympic ski events. And, TBH, I don't blame them. Skiing isn't accessible to most, and it's also not *that* easy. I skied a few times as a child, and I remember once furtively unclipping my boot from a single ski, stuffing said ski into a mound of snow, and then hobbling back to the class instructor to cook up some lie about how I couldn't ski anymore so it would just be best if they all hit the slopes without me.
So, while I've always shied away from activities that involve being cold (don't even ask about the lengths I went to to get out of ice skating), I love watching them. There's something magical about seeing people leap about on snow and ice, gliding at record speeds, and basically doing what 98 percent of the population would find utterly impossible.
When it came to the Winter Olympics, I was excited. That was until I took a closer look at the schedule and realized that I, quite literally, had no idea what was going on. There's a wide breadth of ski events, including slalom (Is this a noun? It's *not* an SAT word I had to learn, that's for sure), mogul (excuse me? WHO?), and downhill (okay I know what this means, but isn't all skiing downhill??!). Perplexed, I did what most people would do: I googled. That wasn't a super successful strategy — I learned nothing. So then, I texted someone who knew more than me: my friend Sinclaire O'Grady. O'Grady was an alpine ski racer for 10 years (she started racing when she was just seven years old, and first skied when she was just two). She raced for Sugar Bowl Academy, located near Lake Tahoe in California, and retired from competitions in 2012.
Turns out though, my questions about skiing were too extensive for just a text exchange. After being first laughed at for my ignorance, O'Grady got to work putting together a guide with EVERYTHING one needs to know about the Olympic ski events. With her help, I was going to become a bonafide slalom/mogul/downhill expert. And I'm bringing you along for the ride.
One of the first things I asked her was about alpine skiing. "Is this to do with trees?" I mused. No. This is basically downhill skiing, it turns out. "Racers must go down a race course and around red and blue gates, with the fastest time winning," O'Grady explains to Bustle. In this year's Winter Olympics, alpine ski events include slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and downhill, per NBC news. What differentiates each of these competitions is the distance between the gates. Which brings us to the next term...
Fun fact: Ski "gates" don't look like gates (I also thought that maybe they looked like hurdles and I wasn't quite right about that either). They're basically two poles with a flag connecting them together which skiers whiz around to victory!
According to The Washington Post, "the length of the course, number of turns and format vary by event... athletes must generally navigate a series of alternating red and blue gates." I had so many questions about gates, and O'Grady sums up this whole situation for Bustle: "You ski around each gate, otherwise you're disqualified. Sometimes there are two gates (an outside and an inside one) which you must ski in between. Sometimes there is just one gate that you must ski around and the 'outside gate' is imaginary. The colors alternate so the skier can keep track of where they are on the course."
I also learned that you can, in fact, hit these gates as you race down the slope: "It's expected when you take the fastest 'line' or way of getting down the course. Often, skiers get very close to the 'inside' gate, which means hitting the gate with some part of your arm," she says. O'Grady also tells Bustle that whacking into the gates doesn't *actually* hurt, especially with all the protective gear the athletes wear. Phew.
Pronounced as Sla-Lom. Break that out at your next Olympics viewing party and watch the masses be impressed with your knowledge! But, what does a slalom event look like? "Gates are closest together, distance-wise, during Slalom events," O'Grady tells Bustle. "The gates also look different to other races — it's just one pole, verse the two with a flag." So, a tall stick planted firmly into the snow, which skiers slide around. USA Today notes that "slalom is about technical skiing". USA Team Olympian Mikaela Shiffrin races slalom events, and to quote O'Grady, "she's basically the Beyoncé of slalom events."
Giant Slalom (GS)
I suppose we should be grateful that whoever came up with these names just stuck to adding an adjective in front of slalom, instead of coming up with a whole new term and complicating this further. Shocker — O'Grady tells Bustle that the gates are further apart than the regular Slalom races. They're also the standard two poles connected with a flag. As CBS Sports explains, "The turns are bigger than slalom, making finding a path that much more essential." This is all making so much sense.
Super-Giant Slalom (Super-G)
What a badass name! When I first saw this, I was quite sure it was a descriptor for an event where skiers leaped between mountains. Not quite. Simply put, the gates are even further apart than the GS events. Or to quote CBS Sports again, "Super-G is like downhill lite."
Okay, so this was by far the most disappointing revelation during my quest for ski knowledge. With downhill events, the gates are further apart still. O'Grady recaps that in order of distance to Bustle: "Slalom, GS, Super-G, and then downhill." But let's up the ante here: this event is freakishly fast. Skiers are going down at around 80 mph. YES. That's like driving-on-a-highway fast. What even. The course is also the longest in the sport, about 9,373 feet (2,857 meters), according to USA Today.
U.S Olympic team member Lindsey Vonn is the queen of downhill skiing. Here's O'Grady's run-down of what the race entails: "There is only one run [and] the fastest person wins. However, athletes do get several training runs before the race. There are also jumps in speed races." Excuse me, jumps? So not only are the athletes going at crazy fast speeds and swinging around gates, they also have to jump? Terrifying! CBS Sports' definition did nothing more to assuage how horrific this event seemed to me, saying, "Downhill is, in a word, insane." Great. I will certainly be DVRing these races so I can watch and rewind multiple times.
"There is one run of Super-G or downhill and one run of slalom," O'Grady tells Bustle. Per The Washington Post, this event is also called "alpine combined." Got it!
For what it's worth, I correctly guessed this one! As O'Grady confirms to Bustle, "At the end of the Olympics, athletes from the same country compete in 'parallel slalom' races." Each race has two men and two women per team, notes USA Today.
Think running on a snow path. But with skis on. That's the gist, and cross-country skiing athletes to use their ski poles a lot in this timed. Another fun fact: this is the oldest ski race, according to Olympics.Org.
So I know what biathlons are — two activities, one after the other. In this case, the first is cross-country skiing. The second (wait for it) is shooting at targets. With a gun. Yeah, I didn't see that coming either. How are these two things even related? This makes no sense! My feelings about the biathlon are validated, as O'Grady agrees. "It's very bizarre," she tells Bustle. "You'd start off working out extremely hard and then suddenly completely change gears, compose yourself, and concentrate on a tiny target." The New York Times explains that a missed target results in a 150-meter penalty lap.
This is another event that has two different activities. The first, again, is cross-country skiing. Then, ski jumping (there's more on what this is later, but for right now, just know that ski jumping sounds like a hellish nightmare). According to the New York Times, the ski jumps are first followed by the cross-country ski racing. The best jumper, as determined by judges, gets a head-start in race portion, and everyone else is staggered in order of their jump performance. So intense!
Freestyle skiing encompasses five different events — aerial halfpipe, mogul, slopestyle, and ski cross — in the Olympics. But unlike alpine skiing, these events are all quite different from each other.
Here's O'Grady's description of this to Bustle: "Literally being a gymnast in the air but during the winter, and with skis on." Basically, aerial skiers jump off ramps at crazy fast speeds and do all sorts of flips and twists in the air. Per NPR, "Aerial skiers get points for doing a harder routine and for sticking the landing." I cannot comprehend how one would physically accomplish this without dying.
"So a halfpipe is a semi-circle," O'Grady tells Bustle; like a pipe, cut in half, as the The Washington Post explains. Wow, these names are so literal. I'd heard this term thrown about a lot (think snowboarder Chloe Kim, a fan fave of this year's Olympics) without a clue as to what it meant. "[Halfpipe is] like skate-boarding ramps but with snow on it. Skiers and Snowboarders go up and down the sides and jump off the top, do tricks, and then come back down and go up the other side," explains O'Grady to Bustle.
So, right off the bat, the word mogul refers to the bumps along the slope, according to The Washington Post. "[Mogul involves] skiing through a field of bumps while being timed and then doing an insane jump that's judged," O'Grady summarizes to Bustle. After hearing that, I'm shook. This is more than I could have hoped for an event titled "mogul," and I had some pretty high hopes.
Slopestyle involves going down a course with different elements thrown in along the way. The sport was only introduced to the Olympics in 2014, per The Washington Post. "There are rails that skiers and snowboarders jump on and do tricks off of," O'Grady relays to Bustle. At this point, I'm overwhelmed by how thrilling and dangerous all these events sound. It's all too much.
This event is basically a race to the finish line, a myriad of jumps, gates, and sharp turns along the way. Four athletes compete in each heat. Now, is it possible to poke your competitors with your ski poles? No. skiers can get disqualified for pulling, pushing or holding back each other when overtaking, explains the Telelgraph. While no brawl are likely to break out on the slopes, it's still an aggressive and thrilling sport that I will 100 percent be tuning into.
I'm going to say this right now, no amount of money could convince me to try this out. And when you hear O'Grady explain what this monstrous event entails, you'll understand why. "Athletes go down a very long platform (where you can't turn back) and jump off of it while wearing VERY long, wide skis, literally flying through the air like a squirrel monkey, and then landing without completely dying," she says to Bustle. I'm having heart palpitations already. Each skier is judged on "distance jumped and the style displayed in the air and upon landing by the jumper," notes NBC. Each athlete does this twice. My question is, why would you even attempt this once?
And there you have it — Olympic skiing 101. All this wisdom has simultaneously enlightened and terrified me. Will I try any of this stuff next time I slip on some skis? Definitely not. But now, when I curl up on my couch to watch the Olympics, swaddled in a blanket with a cheese and carb combo on a plate beside me, I will understand what's going on.
Sinclaire O'Grady contributed to this article. She's a former alpine ski racer (retiring in 2012). She now works in a research lab at Columbia University in New York.