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.

3 thoughts on “Sports, Disciplines, and Phases”

  1. It is pretty counterintuitive that skeleton is part of the same “sport” as bobsled, but different than luge! But that is just the way the IFs have developed.

    Of course, to define “sport” in this way is more than a little pedantic. In Tokyo 2020, baseball and softball will both be organized by the same IF. So they are technically the same “sport” under this definition! But in practice, no one will actually refer to them that way.

    1. Bobsled Federation, FIBT (Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing) at one time included all sledding sports with Bobsleds first, skeleton then luge. In the past all three used tracks designed specifically for each sled. Rivalry with some measurement of animosity came to an end in 1976 with the first combined Bob-Luge track in Innsbruck. Skeleton was left out in the cold, so to speak, until the FIBT supported skeleton development on traditional bob tracks in the mid 1980’s. I agree that all three should be in the same “sport” but luge had to go it’s own way in order to develop and only reluctantly return to a common track for the good of all concerned.

  2. Hi there!

    I’m working on an Olympic project for the state of Vermont, and I have a few questions regarding an athlete that I’m unsure competed, but all articles state that he did in 1952, Verne Goodwin. In addition, I would like to gain access to your new portal, if possible for research purposes. I don’t see a contact form on this page, or the Olympedia site, so if someone could get back to me at [email protected], I’d appreciate it greatly!


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