Sports, Disciplines, and Phases

There are 15 sports to be contested at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. Oh, wait a minute, actually there’s only 7 sports being contested. Did you know that swimming is not a sport at the Olympics? I know, you think I’m nuts.

But all of those statements have some element of truth to them, including the last one. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) defines several types of competitions to be held at the Olympic Games. These are, in order – sports, disciplines, events, phases, units.

Sports are “sports” that are governed by International Federations (IFs). These include what we expect – athletics (track & field), basketball, rowing, wrestling, etc. It does not include swimming, which is not a sport to the IOC, but it does include aquatics, which is.

Disciplines are subsections of sports. Many sports have subsections, such as athletics with running, throwing, hurdling, but only certain sports have defined disciplines by their IFs. Cycling has road cycling, track cycling, mountain biking, and BMX racing. Skiing has Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing, Nordic combined, ski jumping, and snowboarding. And aquatics, defined as a sport by the Fédération Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), recognizes several disciplines, four of which are held at the Olympic Games – swimming, diving, artistic swimming (known until this year as synchronized swimming), and water polo. So swimming is not a sport at the Olympics, it is a discipline.

Events are competitions at the Olympic Games for which the result yields a final result standings and medals to be awarded, such as the 100 metre freestyle swimming, or the decathlon. Thus, in the sport of skiing, we have the discipline of Alpine skiing, and within that discipline, we have the events of downhill, super-G, giant slalom, slalom, and combined (and now a team event).

The decathlon is considered an event, but it also has 10 phases – subsections of an event, in this case, the 10 different athletics events that constitute the decathlon. In other events, things like the finals, semi-finals, first round, qualifying rounds, etc., are considered phases of the event.

Finally, we have event units, which are actually subsections of phases. In the semi-final phase, there is semi-final 1, semi-final 2, etc., both of which are considered units.

So at the Olympic Winter Games, we have 7 sports officially considered as such by the IOC and the IFs – biathlon, bobsledding and skeleton, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating, and skiing.

It might seem that there are actually 15 sports at the Winter Olympics, and the media usually considers this to be the case, and we keep separate statistics for each sport/discipline as if they were all sports. However, the breakdown is as follows, with the sports, followed by their disciplines:


  • Biathlon
  • Bobsledding and Skeleton
    • Bobsledding
    • Skeleton
  • Curling
  • Ice Hockey
  • Luge
  • Skating
    • Figure Skating
    • Short-Track Speed Skating
    • Speed Skating
  • Skiing
    • Alpine Skiing
    • Cross-Country Skiing
    • Freestyle Skiing
    • Nordic Combined
    • Ski Jumping
    • Snowboarding


It should also be noted that these sports are not immutable. Biathlon is considered a sport because it has its own IF, but that was not always so. It used to be governed by the UIMPB – the Union Internationale Moderne Pentathlon et Biathlon, which governed both modern pentathlon and biathlon.

Snowboarding is technically governed by the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski), but it has had its own governing body, and when snowboarding was approved as an Olympic sport in 1998, there was great controversy whether it would come under the IOC umbrella governed by the FIS, which wanted to control it, or the World Snowboard Federation, or even variants of its predecessors, the International Snowboard Federation, or the National Association of Professional Snowboarders. Had it come onto the Olympic Program governed by its own IF, it would be called a sport, not a discipline.

So there you have it. There will be 7 sports contested at PyeongChang. Or maybe it’s 15. Or maybe it’s … We hope this has cleared things up for you.

Vonn and Shiffrin and the Search for Five

Can the USA, or more specifically, Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin, win all 5 women’s individual events in Alpine skiing at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics? And has anything like that ever been done before?

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The Alpine events have been swept before, both by Austria, or rather Toni Sailer, in 1956 at Cortina d’Ampezzo; and in 1968 by France, or Jean-Claude Killy, at Grenoble. Other than those 2 dominating individual accomplishments, no other nation has ever swept the Alpine gold medals, and it has never been done on the women’s side, even with only 3 events, with the closest any nation or person came to that occurring in 1976 when Rosi Mittermaier (FRG) won gold in the downhill and slalom, and a silver in the giant slalom.

However, there have been 5 Alpine events at the Winter Olympics since 1988 in Calgary. At PyeongChang there will actually be an opportunity for a 6th event, with a mixed team event, but here we are only looking at the 5 individual events.

Vonn is coming back from injuries and until later December did not look like she was ready to win any medals, but she has since won 2 races and is likely the favorite in the downhill. There have not been many Super-Gs for women this year, but Vonn did win one at Val d’Isere in December. Lara Gut (SUI) is likely favored, but Vonn, almost a pure speed skier, will certainly contend.

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Lindsey Vonn

Shiffrin has been, until recently, purely a technical skier. In the women’s slalom she will be the heaviest Alpine favorite in PyeongChang, winning 7 World Cup slaloms already this season. She has also won 2 World Cup giant slaloms this year and will likely be favored in that event. Further, Shiffrin, has 2 podiums this year in downhill, an event she eschewed prior to this season, including a victory in December at Lake Louise. With that improved skill in the downhill, and her dominance in slalom, she is likely the favorite in the combined, although that event is harder to call, as it is so rarely raced in the World Cup.

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Mikaela Shiffrin

So has any nation, much less 2 athletes from 1 nation, ever won all 5 individual Alpine Olympic events since 1988? No. The best national performances came in 1998 (Hilde Gerg and Katja Seizinger) and 2010 (Maria Höfl-Riesch and Viktoria Rebensburg) for Germany, which won 3 gold medals; and 2002 for Croatia, when Janica Kostelić won 3 races – slalom, giant slalom, and combined. Among the men, only Austria in 1998 won 3 individual Alpine gold medals, with Hermann Maier winning giant slalom and super-G, and Mario Reiter winning the combined.

So no nation has ever come close. It’s a longshot for Vonn and Shiffrin to win 5 golds, as it was for Eric Heiden in 1980, but it is possible. Can Lindsey and Mikaela do it? We shall see.