KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia -- The next Winter Olympics, beginning on Feb. 9, 2018, are in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This is actually farther away from New York City than these Sochi games were, by about 1,000 miles, and it's not exactly simple to get there from the Big Apple. You'd need to take a China Eastern Air flight 15 hours to Shanghai, then hop another China Eastern Air flight, 90 minutes to Busan, South Korea, and wrap up with an hour flight to Yangyang International Airport.
So that's far. How about 2022? The host city will be selected in July 2015, and there are currently five options: Krakow, Poland; Oslo, Norway; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Lviv, Ukraine (which is seeming sort of unlikely right now, but then again, here we are in Sochi); and Beijing, China. Oslo is the betting odds leader right now, even though Norwegians are against the bid; It's 3,800 miles from NYC, but you can get there in a straight shot, if you're feeling ambitious.
This is all to say that you, you ugly American you, are unlikely to attend a Winter Olympics in the next decade. But you never know. One of the nice things about the Winter Olympics as opposed to the Summer Olympics is that there are fewer venues: There are 15 Winter Olympic disciplines, as opposed to 41 at the Summer Olympics. This means while it is impossible to see every Summer games venue -- there were 30 in London -- you can conceivably do it at the Winter games. I know, because in this fortnight, I did it. Ten venues hosted Olympic competitions these games, and I saw all of them.
On television, all these venues sort of look the same: You're either indoors or you're outdoors. But in person, the viewing experience is dramatically different. Some sports are perfect to see from the stands; some are pointless. The venues will be a little different in Pyeongchang, but only a little; the basic structure is the same.
So! If you decide, "Hey, February is a dull month and I'd always wanted to hit South Korea," or if you're at least curious about someday visiting the Games (which, if you can, you absolutely should; this has been a blast), here's a ranking of which venues/sports are worth heading out and buying tickets for, and which you can comfortably catch from your hotel room. We'll just rank the specific venues here, and extrapolate that future Winter Olympics will be at least relatively similar.
10. Rosa Khutor Alpine Center (alpine skiing)
Downhill skiing is an incredibly impressive pursuit, but watching it from the stands is pointless. The entire race is only viewable on the big screen, away from the stands, and the only part you can see with your own eyes is the end, when they come down the hill on a straightaway. (The least exciting segment of the run, that is.) On television, as I wrote last week, all you're doing is cheering for a clock; in the stands, all you're doing is that, except you're cold and you paid money for the privilege. Don't bother.
9. Sanki Sliding Center (bobsled, luge, skeleton)
There are spots around the track where a few spectators can watch racers fly past them, but there aren't very many and all you're really doing is seeing a blur for a few seconds. Most seats are in the grandstands, where all you can do is watch the rider stop. If you're into sleds stopping, here's your thing.
8. Ice Cube Curling Center (curling)
Curling is super fun, particularly on television, where its inherent goofiness is both intriguing and, ultimately, soothing. (I find it comforting and an easy transition into a pleasant nap.) But in person, there are four games going on at once, and if you think you have a hard time following one curling match, try understanding four. The games also take nearly three hours, the first two of which are almost entirely setup. And they do three of these as day; As we learned from my podcast with NBC curling host Trenni Kusnierek, a full day of curling, with three matches, can last up to 14 hours. I like curling, but that's a lot of curling. Also, in Sochi, they didn't sell alcoholic beer at the curling venue, which defeats half the purpose.
7. Shayba Arena (hockey)
The most fun part of these Olympics for me was seeing all these sports I'd never paid much attention to before, learning about how much work goes into them, how intricate and complex they really are. Meanwhile, hockey is just, you know, hockey: It's terrific, but we know what hockey is. Plus, if the home country isn't playing, the crowds tend to be a little drowsy; this is going to be a problem in South Korea, for sure. For some, seeing the world's best hockey players -- assuming the NHL is allowing that in four years -- is its own draw, and I can't argue with that. But it doesn't feel as special as some of the other events. It's hockey. Everybody knows hockey.
6. Bolshoy Ice Dome (hockey)
Same as above, except this venue is about 6,000 seats bigger, and therefore a little louder.
5. RusSki Gorki Jumping Center (Nordic combined, ski jumping)
The ski jumping itself, while staggering to comprehend (the height and distance they fly is ludicrous), can become a bit monotonous after about 50 jumpers, particularly because they all land in roughly around the same place. The Nordic combined is where it's at here, mostly because of the dead-sprint cross country skiing that comes at the end. It's the closest skiing can get to the short-track speedskating madness, and it's they've all done it shortly after jumping off a building. And you can see every bit of it.
4. Adler Arena Skating Center (speed skating)
Perhaps the prettiest arena of all the coastal venues -- albeit one with a bit of a cat problem, apparently -- it's as calming and relaxing as the sport itself. This is an excellent chaser venue: If you've just watched a particularly crazy event, like some of the ones coming up, this is a nice come down. It's just a smooth, tranquil blue.
3. Laura Cross Country Ski and Biathlon Center (biathlon, cross country skiing)
Biathlon was the one event at these Olympics I didn't see a second of. (How embarrassing, an American traveling halfway across the world to watch sports and somehow missing the one event with a gun in it.) I did see cross country skiing, though, and the specialty I saw, women's 30km, was essentially like watching a marathon on skis. (Which sounds exhausting.) There are places all along the route for fans can yell encouragement from the sidelines -- this is the only sport here in which the competitors can hear you while they're competing -- and the end of the race is a thrilling sprint that those in the grandstand have a perfect view of. A pleasant surprise, this one. The thing with the guns must be even better.
2. Iceberg Skating Palace (figure skating, short track speed skating)
The rink and the arena are nothing special, but they don't have to be: These are the two most appealing indoor events at the Olympics. The short track speed skating is lunacy, a madhouse so chaotic it's almost strange to call it a sport. (It can feel like a lotto.) And figure skating can be an otherworldly experience if you let it. These are perpetually among the toughest tickets to get at any Olympics, but they're worth it.
1. Rosa Khutor Extreme Park (freestyle skiing, snowboard)
Yeah, these people are insane. For pure "I can't believe humans really do this," you can't beat the halfpipe and the ski cross and the giant slalom and specifically the aerials. (Aerials are stupid crazy.) Maybe it's because I'm an American and wasn't raised with any of these other sports -- and all the short-attention-span weakness-for-pizzazz that comes with that -- but for pure adrenaline, raw I-don't-believe-what-I-just-saw spectacle, nothing comes close to the extreme sports. Every single competitor makes your jaw drop. The Olympics are for seeing sights you've never seen before. During one extreme sport event, you're guaranteed to see at least a dozen. Plus, everyone has more fun in the mountains at the Winter Olympics. Unleash your inner Kotsenburg: Get stoked.
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