Today is the day that the torch is lit, and the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy will be underway.

Every four years, we witness some of the more “obscure” events that we just don’t get to see much during non-Olympic years, and there is always a bit of confusion as to what those events entail.

Everybody’s heard of downhill skiing, figure skating, and hockey. These sports are the ones that end up grabbing all the headlines. But what about some of the others?

The four events for which I notice people having a misunderstanding, or no understanding at all, are the biathlon, luge and bobsled events, curling, and snowboarding. I’ll briefly explain each so as to further enhance your Winter Olympic experience.

Biathlon — This sport, that originated in the 1700′s as a training exercise for Norwegian soldiers who patrolled the border, involves two of the worlds most dangerous things: skiing and guns. Competitors cross country ski on a grueling course, then stop to shoot at a target using the rifle they’re carrying, then continue skiing. It’s a sport of endurance and danger. Endurance for the racers. Danger for people who live near the course.

In the traditional competition, the skiers stop at four points along a 12.2 mile course to shoot at targets. To avoid penalties, the skier must hit the bulls-eye. If the shot hits the outer ring, the skier is penalized one minute; if the shot misses entirely, the skier is penalized two minutes; and if the shot hits Roberto Benigni, the skier automatically wins the gold.

Luge — In the luge, competitors lay on their backs on a small sled and glide feet first down an icy track at breakneck speeds. Think of sliding down the south face of Mt. Everest on the hubcap from a ’72 Chrysler.

The first international luge race was held in Switzerland in 1883. In 1913, The International Sled-Sport Federation (ISSF) was founded in Dresden, Germany, in an effort to attract more global appeal to luging, which has been quite slow in coming. To add insult to injury, Dresden was mercilessly firebombed in 1945. Though historians claim this has nothing to do with the ISSF, I continue to have my doubts.

Skeleton — The Skeleton event is like the luge, but racers lay on their bellies and slide down the track head first. Or, as it’s better known in the inner snow-sports circle, “drunken luging.” Racers smash into turns at speeds of 70 to 80 miles per hour and often suffer painful crashes. Skeleton racers quickly learn three things; To control fear, discipline, and what it’s like to be Billy Joel’s hood ornament.

Bobsled — Like a Soap Box Derby on ice at 80 miles per hour, the bobsled offers teams of two to four competitors push-starting a sled and then jumping in just before it leaves them behind. The bobsled is the Geo Metro of ice machines. An aerodynamically designed shell on skates houses the driver and brakeman for the two-man bobsled, and a driver, brakeman, and two others for the four-man bobsled.

The driver and brakeman refer to the other two riders as “the other two.” The bobsled was developed in Switzerland late in the 19th century when, to impress American and British tourists, someone put runners on a toboggan to gain greater speed down the famous Cresta Run at St. Moritz. The tourists loved it. As the saying goes in Switzerland, “If they’ll pay for cheese with holes in it, they’ll pay for anything.”

The terrified screams of early luge and bobsled racers can still be heard echoing throughout the Alps to this day.

Snowboarding — If all Olympic events were movies, snowboarding is a Cheech & Chong flick. Snowboarding is surfing for hydrophobics. The roots of snowboarding can be traced back to the 1920′s, coincidentally around the same time that California surfer bums would have acquired the means to drive up to the mountains for the weekend.

For some reason, snowboarding has become synonymous with smoking pot. Perhaps it has something to do with Ross Rebagliati of Canada testing positive for the drug after his winning run in the men’s giant slalom in the 1998 games. Or professional snowboarders Mike Kildevaeld and Brett Tippie who were busted for pot possession in Nevada after being pulled over by a Sheriff, who then noticed his drug sniffing dog running to the 7-11 for a bag of Doritos and some Visine.

Curling — Shuffleboard, bowling and janitorial work finally get their respect in this sport. In curling, a stone is pushed down a frozen playing area, which is 46 yards long and 14 feet wide, and the closest to a target “button” wins. Members of the curling team are allowed to use brooms to sweep the ice ahead of the stone so it will go further, and also aim to knock an opponents stone away from the button.

The earliest known curling stone, found in Scotland, dates back to 1511, and a 1560 painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Breughel shows a Dutch curling scene, complete with brooms. Breughel’s painting, entitled “Sweep, ye drunken bastards, sweep!” is the earliest known visual representation of curling.

Shortly before the Summer Games, we’ll discuss a sport that involves pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, show jumping and running. If you’re involved in these five things, it means you’re either competing in the Pentathlon, or in training at the Martha’s Vineyard Police Academy.

Enjoy the Winter Games!

Curling: A grueling combination of shuffleboard, bowling, and janitorial work


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