The 22nd Winter Olympiad in Sochi, Russia will see an unprecedented 12 new events make their way into the pantheon of Olympic competition, which includes Women's Ski Jump, Biathlon Relay-Mixed (in which men and women compete together), Men's and Women's Snowboard Parallel Slalom, Figure Skating Team Event-Mixed, Men's and Women's Snowboard Slopestyle, Luge Team Relay-Mixed, Men's and Women's Ski Slopestyle and Men's and Women's Ski Halfpipe.
Despite the immense physical and mental constitutions required to excel at any Winter sport that would see athletes earn a spot at the Olympic Games, there is no denying that some events are more popular than others. While we have no established measurements by which to asses them, we have nonetheless attempted to rank certain Winter Olympic disciplines by what we believe are their best metrics, the volume of spectators they draw. Please be advised however, that we are not disparaging any of these sports or the extraordinary athletes who excel at them, but are merely offering the natural companion to our previous assessment of 'The Top 10 Most Exciting Winter Olympic Sports.'
Therefore, in the spirit of Olympia, we present our choices for Top 10 least popular Winter Olympic events;
Among the five Freestyle Skiing events, Aerials sees athletes launch themselves from ramp and perform a number of gymnastic style twists, spins, somersaults and other acrobatics and are judged on their execution of these moves as well as their landing. Freestyle events have evolved from the so called 'X' sports which though wildly popular with younger spectators, have only been Olympic events for a relatively short time and are therefore still developing a wider appreciation.
10 Slopestyle Skiing
Another Freestyle competition, Slopestyle requires competitors to gain the maximum height possible over several jumps while performing the most difficult and varied acrobatics, and are judged on the execution of these tricks as well as their landings. As with many relatively new events, Slopestyle remains extremely popular with younger fans, but is still in a growth phase among those who are unfamiliar with the incredible dexterity and physical demands of the sport. Like many so called 'X' competitions, the nature of Slopestyle carries a significant level of potential injury.
9 Cross Country Skiing
One of the most gruelling of all Winter Olympic events, Cross Country Skiing requires athletes to race in two separate disciplines; 1) Classical – which sees athletes use a parallel diagonal stride and 2) Freestyle – in which competitors employ an outward and backward thrusting motion much like skating. Men and women compete in individual and team sprint events, freestyle, pursuit, classical and relays on courses from between 1.4 kilometers and 50 kilometers. Though the sport is very popular across Europe and North America, the long distances involved due tend to limit its draw of spectators.
While this sport has been part of Olympic history since 1924, it wasn't officially recognized as a Winter Olympic event by the IOC until 2006. A highly strategic discipline, Curling sees 2 teams of 4 players compete on a large, rectangular ice surface by sliding heavy granite 'rocks' down the length of the ice. The other players use brooms ahead of the stones to 'sweep' or guide them, with the goal of placing more rocks than your opponents within a target (or 'House'), very similar to that of Archery. Though extremely popular as a recreational sport with North Americans and Europeans who have dominated Olympic competition, Curling does tend to attract less spectators than more physical ice events such as Figure Skating and Hockey.
7 Ski Cross
This 'X' style event most closely resembles Motocross racing, and sees 4 athletes compete on qualifying courses of 1000 meters, with those finishing with the best times advancing to the second round, and after that the medal round. The course includes a variety of turns, bumps and small jumps that require intense concentration and physical stamina. Again, this discipline is very popular with younger fans, but is very new to many traditional Olympic spectators, having only been introduced to the Olympic roster in Vancouver in 2010.
One of the oldest international winter sports, Luge was added as a Winter Olympic event in Innsbruck, Austria in 1964. In Sochi it will consist of four competitions; Men's and Women's Singles, Mixed Doubles and Mixed Team Relay. Luge requires athletes to lie on their backs on a sled and propel themselves down the same ice track used in Skeleton and Bobsled events, with the winner clocking the fastest time in qualifying and medal rounds. Among the fastest of all Winter Olympiad sports, competitors can often reach speeds in excess of 130 km/hr or 80 mph, and as with all sled events, carries a considerable risk of injury. Though quite popular in European nations, Luge remains a fairly tepid draw for most Olympic audiences.
5 Nordic Combined
Combining both Ski Jumping followed by a Cross Country Ski race, Nordic Combined remains the last Winter Olympic event that is held exclusively among men, something which will no doubt change, though it didn't in time for Sochi 2014. The skill and athletic dexterity required for this discipline is considerable, but although Ski Jumping is rather popular, the nature of Cross Country Skiing events (in this case 10 kilometers) generally discourages large crowds of spectators, as it does take a significant amount of time to complete.
Initially developed as a training exercise for Norwegian soldiers in the 18th century, Biathlon combines Cross Country Skiing with Rifle Target Shooting in one of the most unique events at a Winter Olympiad. The sport was first officially included at the 1964 Games in Squaw Valley, USA but was a Men's only event until the Women's competition was added in 1992 in Albertville, France. Consisting of Cross Country distance races of 10, 12.5, 15 and 20 Kilometers, athletes stop at various areas along the course at distances of 50 meters to shoot a .22 caliber rifle at five targets, with distance penalties added to the Cross Country portion for each missed target. As with many Cross Country Skiing events, the length of time required to complete this event doesn't usually generate large crowds of spectators.
3 Short Track Speed Skating
Beginning as a demonstration sport at the Calgary, Canada Winter Games in 1988, Short Track Speed Skating became an official Winter Olympic event at the Albertville Olympiad in 1992. Four skaters race various distances, 500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters for both Men and Women, as well as 3,000 meter relay for Women and 5,000 meters for Men. Skaters race around an ice oval whose circumference (111.12 meters) matches that of an international Ice Hockey rink (30 by 60 meters). While Short Track initially took a back seat to its more well-established Long Track cousin for some time, the sport is certainly gaining in popularity, but has yet to attain the same international appreciation.
Our final choice for the number one least popular Winter Olympic sport is Skeleton. Very similar to the Luge event, athletes lie prone but head first on sleds that use the same track as Luge and Bobsled races and are capable of achieving speeds of up to 130 km/hr or 80 mph. Like all Olympic sledding events, Skeleton competitors are exposed to significant risk of injury. Making its first appearance at the 1948 Winter Olympiad in St. Moritz, Switzerland, the sport had a major hiatus from Olympic competition and did not re-emerge as an official event until the Salt Lake City Games in 2002. As a result, the sport has struggled somewhat to attract large audiences, despite the considerable physical strength and stamina required by competitors and its unique Olympic history.
Regardless of their relative popularity however, all of these events and their athletes hold a special place in Olympic lore, as we trust we've demonstrated, and we salute each and every one of them.