The Winter Olympics: Nothing beats the thrill of alpine skiing, the intrigue of figure skating scandals, and the excitement of … being dragged over a lake by a horse?
Up until the 1990s, countries that hosted the Winter (or Summer) Games could add “demonstration sports” to to their lineup of activities. These weren’t official medal events, and they often showcased niche, regional pastimes. Some of them went on to become official events, but a lot of them (like skijoring, the one with the horse) didn’t.
So, in anticipation of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, here are some of the most unusual demonstration events from past Winter Games.
Skijoring is a race in which skiers hang on to the reins of a horse (or dog) and get pulled along over the ice and snow. It only showed up as a demonstration sport once at the 1928 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where participants raced each other with horses over a frozen lake.
Skijoring is still practiced today with both horses and dogs in Europe and North America. The dog version looks a bit like a combination of two other events that have made the Olympics: Cross-country skiing, which is an official medal event; and dog sledding, which also appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
“A lot of our sports, particularly our Olympic sports, they have a bit of a military application [or] tradition,” says Craig Greenham, an Olympic historian and professor of kinesiology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada. The same goes for skijoring, which was once a means of military transportation in wintry climates.
Swan Lake on a Mountain
Ski ballet is pretty much what it sounds like: Figure skating on snow with skis, complete with jumps, spins, and pole-assisted flips. Ski ballet was a demonstration event at both the 1988 Olympic Games in Calgary, Canada, and the 1992 Games in Albertville, France. But two showings didn’t get it any closer to becoming an official medal event.
Events like ski ballet have “always had a harder time justifying their Olympic merit,” Greenham explains. “In a North American context, it sure appears fringe … with rules that are very difficult for the average sports fan to understand.”
David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians and author of The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, is a little more blunt about ski ballet’s reception: “Nobody paid attention to that when it happened.”
Dangerously Fast Skiing
In speed skiing, the goal isn't to beat another person down a mountain, but rather to ski the fastest time humanly possible. It only appeared as a demonstration event at the 1992 Albertville Games, where the winner clocked in at 142 miles per hour (for comparison, the speed of stable freefall is 120 mph).
Greenham says that speed skiing is actually more in line with the type of extreme, X Games-y events that the Olympics have added in recent years. So why didn’t it become an official Olympic event?
Sadly, the main reason is “because a guy died during training at the Olympics,” Wallechinsky says. In addition to the tragic death of Swiss speed skier Nicholas Bochatay, Wallechinsky says speed skiing also isn’t a great viewing experience on television, which is important because that’s how most of the world watches the Olympics.
Watch “Inside North Korea: Live From the Games,” an hourlong documentary special featuring live commentary from host & correspondent Bob Woodruff. Premieres Sunday, Feb. 11, at 9/8c on National Geographic.