Ranking the Hardest Winter Olympic Sports
Yes, curling makes the list. And no, we're not biased at all.
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
In the United States, the Winter Olympics suffer from an unfortunate enthusiasm gap compared to its summer cousin. In the 2016 Summer Olympics, NBC suffered from unusually low ratings, with an average of 27.8 million viewers. To put that in perspective, that’s still 20 percent higher than the 2014 Winter Olympics. But why?
First, there’s the barrier to entry: On top of snow and ice, the events all require special equipment. Then there’s the fact that most Americans have never watched these events, let alone tried them. But Phill Drobnick, coach for the U.S. Curling Team, thinks that’s exactly what makes the Winter Games so special: “A lot of people don’t have an opportunity to see these types of sports. The Winter Olympics are the only chance to really check them out.”
To help you better appreciate this year’s Winter Games, we’ve broken down what it takes to train for eight of the most grueling events. While they’re all difficult, we took into account the physical rigor and mental stamina required to create a rough (maybe kinda subjective) ranking, starting with the easiest (sorry, curlers) and ending with the hardest.
In its simplest terms, curling is basically shuffleboard on ice. One player slides a stone down a lane as two sweepers skate alongside, vigorously brushing the ice to control the stone’s speed and stop it where it can get the most points. Now, admittedly, that sounds pretty simple. “I hear people say, ‘That’s my ticket to the Olympics,’” says Rick Patzke, CEO of USA Curling. “But they end up trying it and realizing it’s a lot harder than it looks.” In a single game, the sweepers can cover as much as four miles, so training emphasizes cardio and upper-body strength. With a schedule that lasts nearly the entire duration of the games and usually includes two matchups per day, some players will compete for nearly 50 hours total. The physical element pales in comparison to the mental focus and coordination you need for that same period to gauge ice friction, judge speed, and strategize targeting opponents’ stones.
At first glance, skeleton looks both simple and insane. Athletes launch themselves head first onto a bare-bones sled that fires down the luge track. They’ll fly at nearly 90 miles per hour and reach five Gs of force. Powerful, explosive movement is crucial here, because that initial launch is the only chance to build up speed on your own. After that, it’s all gravity. That means the athletes spend a great deal of time doing HIIT-style workouts and shorter, faster efforts to replicate this part of the race. You steer by shifting your body, using your core almost exclusively to dictate micro-movements and shifts in weight, so developing strength and control here is key. Although races are often over in about 60 seconds, they require incredible mental toughness to overcome your physical gut reaction that this is way too damn fast, which could cause you to flinch and lose valuable speed or even crash.
#6. Ski Jump
You literally launch your body from a squat position and then hold yourself rigid as you fly through the air. Umm, that’s not easy. To do so effectively, you have to stay as straight and aerodynamic as possible—imagine holding a plank while going 60 miles per hour. A lot of ski-jump training happens off the hill, with a variety of exercises that target the core and glutes, plus drills that simulate the jump. And while gear may make marginal differences in performance, this is about as clean-cut and simple a sport as you can get in the Winter Olympics. It’s just your own body and how fast and far you can launch it.
Bobsledders need to be buff. Even the smallest two-person sled is nearly 300 pounds (four-man sleds are a minimum of 460), and it’s on you and your team to take it from a standstill to around 25 miles per hour in less than five seconds before hopping in. Track athletes and football players tend to transition pretty well into bobsleigh because they’ve developed the powerful, explosive energy spurts needed to generate momentum. Like skeleton, competitors will hit up to 90 miles per hour over a mile-long track with 15 to 20 curves. Power cleans and squat jumps are good training, since you’re firing your body forward from a similar crouching position on the ice. Once inside the sled, your goal is body control, limiting movement that could influence the sled’s trajectory. That’s especially key past 50 meters, when the sled is no longer on grooves—meaning it can careen out of control and flip with any wrong turn.
Slalom—the slowest of the alpine-racing disciplines yet the one that arguably requires the most technique—calls for precision movements and incredible coordination. It’s so quick that even as you’re knocking down a gate, your eyes and mind already have to be on the next two. That means you have to learn to get over mistakes quickly and think on the fly. Physically, you must keep tight control of your turns, which requires balance. Off the mountain, slalom skiers do a lot of cross-training to build strength and stability, like plyometric exercises, medicine ball throws, cycling, and slacklining.
#3. Speed Skating
It may be tempting to call speed skating the Winter Olympics version of track and field, but that’s not quite right, as far as muscles and mechanics go. You’re better off comparing it to cycling, considering the powerful thighs, velocities, and constant danger of tipping over. (In fact, one of the most decorated speed skaters in history, American Eric Heiden, was also a national cycling champion.) Skaters can reach speeds over 30 miles per hour on a flat surface, with their legs doing all the work. That means not only do you have to spend long hours in the weight room generating your fast-twitch muscles, but you also better develop some serious endurance to be able to hang with the best on the ice.
#2. Nordic Skiing
This is one of the most storied and tenured sports at the Winter Olympics, yet it remains one of the most difficult for U.S. fans to understand and appreciate. Endurance is king here, whether it’s a 10K, a relay race, or a sprint. At these competitive levels, it’s a world apart from the leisurely cross-country skiing most people might try on a snowy weekend. It’s a full-body sport, with legs and arms working full tilt from start to finish. Balance is also a big deal—crashes on downhill turns can dramatically shake up the results—meaning a strong, controlled core can make or break you. For the Americans, this year will be mental battle. The United States hasn’t taken a single gold in any cross-country events—Nordic countries typically dominate the sport—but our team is poised to kick up some powder, thanks to the fiery Kikkan Randall and her teammates.
Many of these sports clearly evolved out of some practical, real-world discipline that now, out of context, looks bizarre. The biathlon, which started out as military training, is the poster child for such an evolution. The two sports that make up the “bi-” are cross-country skiing and riflery, with two to six shooting ranges studding each course. This sport is punishing, and not something you can easily pick up, even with two or three years of training, especially since every course you encounter can be wildly different. On top of the endurance training needed to cover the ski portion with skill and speed—which involves weights, sprints, and, in summer months, trekking on specialized roller-skis—biathletes have to learn to shoot accurately and confidently while their heart rate is elevated.