Every four years, viewers around the world eagerly tune in to watch familiar Winter Olympic sports such as figure skating and alpine skiing as well as quirkier events such as short-track speed skating and curling. But over the years there have been even more unusual and extreme sports that were once staged at the Winter Games.
Many of these now-discontinued events were demonstration sports, often indigenous to the host countries, in which winners did not receive official medals. The following eight are among the most curious in Winter Olympics history.
Not all Winter Olympians have been of the two-legged variety. At the 1928 Winter Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, horses raced on the Alpine resort’s frozen lake and participated in the demonstration sport of skijoring—which has been likened to water skiing on snow. Originating in Scandinavia as a means of transportation and transmitting military dispatches, skijoring (roughly translated from the Norwegian words for “ski driving”) involves skiers being towed by horses, dogs or other animals. In skijoring’s lone Olympic appearance, seven competitors from Italy and Switzerland gripped onto reins attached to wooden harnesses fitted to riderless horses as they glided across the frozen lake of St. Moritz. Although skijoring never made another Olympic appearance, the niche sport endures in Scandinavia, Switzerland and the American West.
2. Sled dog racing
Following in the hoof steps of their equine counterparts, canines competed in sled dog races at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Mushing arose in North America during the Klondike Gold Rush, and all 13 drivers participating in the demonstration sport hailed from the United States and Canada. Competitors included Eva Seeley, the only female athlete at the third Winter Games except for figure and speed skaters, and 55-year-old Leonhard Seppala, hero of the epic 1925 sled dog relay that delivered serum to Nome, Alaska, during a diphtheria epidemic. Mushers and their seven-dog teams traveled a 25-mile course on two consecutive days. Driving the fastest team on both days, Canada’s Emil St. Goddard posted the lowest cumulative time, winning by nearly eight minutes over Seppala.
3. Ski ballet
Described as figure skating on snow, ski ballet first appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada, along with two other freestyle skiing disciplines—aerials and moguls. Aided by ski poles, 12 men and six women performed twirls, jumps, dance moves and flips in acrobatic routines on a ski slope the size of a football field accompanied by music that ranged from the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Judges evaluated performances on technical difficulty, choreography and overall performance. Ski ballet returned to the Winter Olympics in 1992 as a demonstration sport, but unlike moguls and aerials, it failed to be elevated to medal status and never returned. In the wake of the Olympic snub, the International Ski Federation staged its last ski ballet world championship in 1999.
4. Speed skiing
Befitting a sport that’s all about velocity, speed skiing required little time to explain when it made its sole Olympic appearance at the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. Starting near a mountaintop, skiers rocketed down a 59-degree grade in a straight line and attempted to post the fastest speed inside a 100-meter timing zone. Wearing futuristic aerodynamic helmets, rubber body suits and specialized skis, competitors regularly topped speeds of 125 miles per hour and left white plumes in their wakes Flats. Both French doctor Michael Prufer (142 miles per hour) and Finland’s Tarja Mulari (136 miles per hour) broke their own world records in winning the men’s and women’s competitions, respectively. The event, however, was marred by a fatal accident on the morning of the final when 27-year-old Swiss speed skier Nicolas Bochatay died of internal injuries after colliding with a snow grooming machine during a practice run.
A hybrid of hockey and soccer, bandy appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway. Organized bandy clubs date back to 19th century England when field hockey was adapted for an ice rink, but the sport gained its greatest popularity in Scandinavia and Russia after spreading to continental Europe. Playing on ice sheets the size of soccer fields, bandy teams consist of 11 skaters who wield long-handled sticks with curved blades to handle a hard ball, not a puck. Stickless goalies protecting the soccer-size nets stop shots using only their hands. At the 1952 Games, teams representing Finland, Norway and Sweden played a round-robin tournament in which each squad had one win and one loss. Although it lost to Norway in a national match for the first time in 25 years, Sweden finished first based on goals scored.
6. Military patrol
Along with skiers and skaters, soldiers competed at the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924 in a medal event straight out of boot camp—military patrol. Four-man teams included one officer, one non-commissioned officer and two privates wearing uniforms and 50-pound backpacks. The event combined 30 kilometers of cross-country skiing, mountaineering over hundreds of meters of elevation and rifle shooting at balloon targets. While officers carried pistols, the other three team members fired 18 shots at various intervals along the course and earned time bonuses for every target hit. Six countries competed in the 1924 military patrol competition in Chamonix, France, with Switzerland winning the gold medal. Military patrol returned in 1928, 1936 and 1948—but as demonstration sports. Its legacy lives on, however, in the modern biathlon, an event combining cross-country skiing and shooting that has been a Winter Olympics medal sport since 1960.
7. Ice stock sport
Curling was not staged at the 1936 and 1964 Winter Olympics, but its Alpine cousin—ice stock sport (called “Eisstock” in German)—was part of those Olympic programs as a demonstration sport. Known as “Bavarian curling,” the sport has been played for centuries in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. Similar to curlers, competitors grip the handles of the round “ice stock,” which weighs nearly 10 pounds, and swing it back and forth before releasing it onto the ice while attempting to come closest to a target, a rubber disc called a “daube,” or cover the longest distance. Eight all-male teams from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia participated at the 1936 Winter Olympics, in which the Austrians swept the team event and individual distance and target shooting competitions.
8. Winter pentathlon
Modern pentathlon, introduced at the 1912 Summer Games, is one of the most grueling Olympic events, and it had a frosty counterpart at the 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz. In its only Olympic appearance, the demonstration sport of winter pentathlon featured 14 athletes who competed in five events—cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, shooting, fencing and horseback riding—all held outdoors. As they did in modern pentathlon, Swedish athletes dominated the competition and swept the first three spots. Runner-up William Grut, a Swedish artillery officer, went on to win gold in the modern pentathlon at the 1948 Summer Olympics.