When the Greeks competed for Olympic laurels thousands of years ago, they didn't have to contend with snow or clothes – indeed, they competed naked, outdoors. Things have certainly changed since then – and not just in the clothing department.
Since the Winter Olympic Games were officially launched in Chamonix, in 1924, hundreds of global competitors have hit the slopes, the rink, and icy tracks in the hopes of taking home the gold. In honor of this year's Winter Olympic Games, the 20th event of its kind, we've compiled a list of top places to practice Olympicsports– because watching the games unfold in Torino has got us in a sporting mood. Some of the sports are so unusual – i.e., bobsledding, luging, freestyle skiing – it's rare to see them in action outside of a televised event, but you can try your hand at these, and other more common winter sports, like snowboarding and cross-country skiing, at first-rate sites across North America and beyond. Not surprisingly, some of the best sites to test your prowess once hosted Winter Olympic Games themselves – namely, Lake Placid, Calgary, Salt Lake City/Park City – but you may be surprised to learn that you can learn how to figure skate in Florida, practice the biathlon in Germany, speed-skate in Holland, and try curling in Minnesota. See you on the Luge Rocket!
Mix cross-country skiing with target-rifle shooting and what do you get? The Biathlon, one of the most unique sports on the Winter Olympic schedule. This Norwegian hybrid of cross-country endurance and marksmanship got its first Olympic showing in Squaw Valley in 1960, but is best learned today in the tiny town of Oberhof, Germany, host of the 2004 Biathlon World Cup. Newcomers can train with experienced instructors at the state-of-the-art Rennsteig Arena, where lanes can be reserved for firearm target practice and amateurs can watch professionals perform their stunts (in practice and competitions) from platforms lining three onsite tracks.
Bobsledding (or bobsleighing), an Olympic regular since the 1924 games in Chamonix, is the perfect activity for those who crave speed. Happily, you needn’t train for years on end to give it a whirl – head to Utah Olympic Park, in Park City, Utah (30 miles from Salt Lake City), where, for $200, you’ll get a snazzy helmet strapped on your head and a seat (with room for up to two more of your wildest companions) in a four-man bobsled, with an experienced driver to pilot the dare-devilish run.
Listed among the original 1924 Winter Games competitions, cross-country skiing is as old as 5000 BC, and got its start, not surprisingly, in snowy Scandinavia. While it may be one of the easier winter sports to learn, it’s also one of the most psychologically demanding to complete, especially when long distances are involved; you can test your mettle on the superb Nordic tracks built for the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, and most recently used for the 2005 Cross-Country World Cup. Managed by the Canmore Nordic Centre, the 37 miles of trails here are technically closer to Banff than they are to Calgary, giving you the opportunity to try world-class downhill and cross-country skiing in a single trip.
While it’s occasionally been reduced to a demonstration (rather than competitive) Olympic sport since being introduced to the roster in 1924, curling remains one of the most novice-friendly sports in the Winter Games line-up. Minnesota’s Bemidji Curling Club has produced over 50 state and national titles in its 70+ year history; you can learn the ins and outs of the sport that’s part bowling, part ice sweeping, and no parts skating, from club managers (and, if you’re lucky, US Olympic team coach Bob Fenson) here between November and April.
One of the most highly watched – and contested – sports of the Winter Games, figure-skating has been part of the Olympic program since 1908 (dancing was added in the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Games). Today, novices can actually cut their own figure eights at top ice rinks around the US. One of our favorites is in sunny Florida, of all places, where Incredible Ice, a 75,000-square-foot facility in Coral Springs, offers daily lessons and the chance to perfect your axels with top-rated professional coaches.
Instead of packing up those skis and saying good-bye to the slopes post Olympics, aspiring freestylers can continue to ski well into summer on Whistler/Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier where Momentum Ski Camps offers freestyle training on prime mogul terrain with eight lines of perfect bumps and five table tops from 15- to 50-feet high that let you practice new air techniques. The camp’s nine-day sessions are directed by a team of former and current national-team-member coaches who’ve either competed in the World Cup or participated in Olympic Games.
Introduced in the 1920 Summer Olympics, and subsequently played in every Winter Olympics from 1924-onwards, hockey is, not surprisingly, best played in Canada and, more specifically, in Montreal, where the local pro hockey team (the Montreal Canadiens) holds the greatest number of Stanley Cup wins of any NHL team and the students of McGill University wrote the definitive hockey rule book in the 1870s. Pick-up hockey – where you basically show up to play and don’t need anything except a hockey stick and sheer pluck – is incredibly popular here; two of the best rinks to join in the fun are in Parc Lafontaine and Parc Mont-Royal.
Despite joining the Olympic roster in 1964 (in Innsbruck), luge remains an elusive sport, with only a dozen or so internationally certified, full-length tracks in the world; one of the newest and most challenging of the lot is the Olympic run at the Verizon Sports Complex, just seven miles from the picturesque village of Lake Placid, the winter-sports mecca in upstate New York that hosted North America’s first Winter Olympics in 1932 (a role it repeated in 1980). This is where the USA National Luge Team trains, and, for $30 a pop, you can join their ranks by piloting your own semi-enclosed, modified luge (French for "sleigh") on the Luge Rocket.
One of the youngest Olympic sports, snowboarding debuted at the Nagano Winter Games, as recently as 1998. Today, as US-favorite Shaun White shows off his trademark 1080 (three complete mid-air rotations), you can practice some snowboarding stunts of your own back home, on legendary Rocky Mountain terrain. Breckenridge, Colorado has been helping boarders catch major air and craft their freestyle skills for more than 20 years and boasts the country’s first SuperPipe (a 400-foot-long snow corridor with 18-foot walls) and the super-star Freeway Terrain Park, a snowboard park with all the necessities for airborne tricks, spins, and super-speed runs.
The Dutch not only mastered fine paintings and windmills over the course of history, but they also managed to invent some of the most eccentric (albeit practical) forms of footwear, from clunky clogs to ice skates. Holland, with its many canals and waterways that freeze over in winter, was a natural candidate to discover this practical and downright fun means of transport, which dates as far back as the Middle Ages. To partake in Holland’s strongest Olympic category, you needn’t go further than Amsterdam, where you can practice speed skating in the city’s many indoor rinks, or learn to pick up the pace at the scenic artificial rink in Dam Square.
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