New Olympic sports in Sochi range from the extreme to the ‘just silly’

From figure skating teams to female ski jumpers — a dozen new events will debut at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. (Associated Press)

Jamie Anderson’s pre-competition ritual bears little resemblance to that of most Winter Olympians.

Shortly before her event, she likely will be found meditating among the trees, soaking in their energy and saying a prayer for the environment around her. There’s no last-minute huddling with a coach. A professional snowboarder since 15, Anderson sees no need for a coach, dominating the X Games the past seven years by crafting what she calls a “soul-shredding” program all her own.

And stashed in her pocket, along with an MP3 player loaded with a song for every mood, is a vial of herbal oil. “You never know when you might need to bust out some peppermint and clear the head,” Anderson explains with a Cheshire-cat grin. “Got to keep it organic.”

One of eight home-school siblings from South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Anderson, 23, is a new breed of athlete in a new-age sport, slopestyle snowboarding, that’s making its debut in the 2014 Sochi Games.

It’s part of an effort by the International Olympic Committee to inject a more edgy, contemporary vibe to the Winter Games in the wake of market research in the 1990s that showed the Games were losing the youth market, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky.

That decline was underscored by sports-participation data that showed the number of U.S. snowboarders almost doubled from 1988 to 1995 while the number of skiers dropped by 25 percent, Wallechinsky noted in “The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics.”

The push to reclaim the youth market started at the 1998 Nagano Games, where two disciplines of snowboarding, halfpipe and giant slalom (since replaced by parallel giant slalom), made their debut.

Sochi carries that initiative further. In all, 12 new Winter Olympic events have been added — eight of which boast X Games roots and the younger fan base that the IOC, Olympic broadcasters and advertisers covet.

“It’s important,” U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said of the effort to attract a younger demographic. “We’ve done a better job on the winter side than on the summer side. I think in deciding to bring snowboarding in at the beginning, it has had a great impact. I’ve got kids. They love to snowboard; they don’t like to ski. It’s exactly the right direction.”

That said, TV viewers likely will need a road map to follow the new events.

Not all have X Games roots, however. Four of the 12 are traditional Winter Games sports contested in a new format.

Wallechinsky suspects that reflects a political compromise worked out among IOC delegates behind closed doors, designed to prevent Sochi’s final medal count from tilting too heavily in favor of the United States and Canada, whose athletes have tended to dominate the extreme sports.

Hence, Olympic audiences can look forward to biathlon mixed relay, luge team relay, team figure skating and women’s ski jumping — which should give athletes from Norway, Germany, Austria and Russia chances to shine as well.

Women’s ski jumping has lobbied for Olympic status for years, with a handful of athletes filing suit in 2008 to win a place in the Games.

Figure skating draws some of the highest TV ratings in the Olympics but had just four disciplines: women’s, men’s, pairs and ice dance. By adding a team event that will be contested over three days, the IOC hopes to coax those viewers back for more. Ten countries will take part, choosing one man, one woman, one pair and one dance couple to perform their short programs. The five countries with the highest combined marks advance, choosing skaters in all four disciplines (substitutions are allowed) to perform their long programs. The three countries with the highest combined totals win the medals.

U.S. ice dancer Meryl Davis, who won silver at the 2010 Vancouver Games with partner Charlie White, is thrilled about the chance to compete for a shared medal.

“Other sports like gymnastics and swimming have really gotten a chance to embrace that team unity that we haven’t,” Davis said. “Getting a chance to do that at the Olympic Games embodies the Olympic spirit.”

Wallechinsky sees less compelling arguments for other additions.

“Some of it is just silly,” he says. “Luge relay? Seriously?”

The remaining eight new events are offshoots of X Games staples that wildly adventurous snowboarders and freestyle skiers made up just yesterday, it seems, on the terrain parks that have cropped up at ski resorts like kudzu.

Freestyle skiers will compete in men’s and women’s halfpipe, in which they launch themselves off the icy sides of a carved-out pipe and perform a series of flips and spins that are judged for difficulty, style and creativity. They also will compete in slopestyle, negotiating a downhill course of jumps and rails in the most daring, inventive way imaginable.

“You have the set course, but there are no constraints or parameters as to what you have to do on the course,” explains Indiana native Nick Goepper, 19, a gold medal favorite in slopestyle skiing. “You can hit it from the side or ski around it if you want. There’s no limit to what you can do. It’s almost kind of artistic. It’s like the course is your canvas and the skis are your paintbrush.”

Speeding down a ski jump is not for the faint of heart. Coach Alan Alborn of the U.S. women’s ski jumping team explains how it comes down to about eight seconds. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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United States 8 19 17 44
China 10 11 7 41
Russia 2 11 3 35
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