The Winter Olympics has long embraced offbeat events, awarding medals for skills that are essentially head-first sledding and target-practice on skis.
But when NBC's coverage of the quadrennial competition begins from Sochi, Russia on Feb. 6, the Winter Olympics will push even its own quirky boundaries. For the first time, the Games will feature such events as team figure skating, women's ski jumping and the trick-filled downhill course of skiing and snowboarding known as "slopestyle" — part of a complement of a dozen events that have never before been included in the Games.
Not least of its upended rites: The opening ceremony actually won't take place until Feb. 7, a day after the competition begins.
In what will be the longest, largest and most broadcast Winter Games, NBC will offer a number of innovations. The first Winter Games in Russia will also be the first Winter Games to have every moment of its more than 1,500 hours of competition available on TV or via live-streaming.
The Games will also offer special challenges, such as political abstentions over an anti-gay law, a cloud of free-speech controversies under the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, security questions in the wake of dual terrorist bombings in Volgograd and a hefty time difference that will especially stand out in this age of social media.
All this will add up to a mix of opportunities and challenges, and a potential shift in how Americans consume the Winter Games.
"New events like women's ski jumping and team figure skating come at a time when the audience's appetite and ability to interact with all sports is growing," said NBC Olympics executive producer Jim Bell, the "Today" veteran who is helming his first Winter Games after stepping into the retired Dick Ebersol's shoes several years ago. "What you saw in London was a big step in terms of airing everything live. What you'll see in Sochi is another significant step."
The Winter Games has added events before—curling in 1998, or the form of head-to-head snowboard racing known as snowcross in 2006. But these Games will see the most new events in 22 years. Also at Sochi is a halfpipe ski competition, an extreme-sports spin on the classic skill, and a luge relay, which manages to allow for its own version of baton-passing for racers shooting down a mountain, on their backs, at 80 mph.
And if you thought scoring for individual figure skating was byzantine, consider the team
competition: it will feature six skaters from each country competing
in a total of eight events on three separate nights.
It's part of a bold — some say fraught — effort by the International Olympic Committee to raise the Games' profile among newer viewers, particularly younger ones, even as the expansion leads to the question of whether more is better. The Games could thus face a backlash that it is engaging in event creep, and doing it for sports that belong more at the X Games. (The Summer Olympics, never one to shy away from new events, has thus far stayed away from skateboading and other less traditional sports.)
Those involved with the coverage say that these sports only enhance the Winter Games' appeal.
"At first I was a bit of a purist," said Al Michaels, who began covering the Olympics in 1972 and will again anchor many of the Games' daytime telecasts. "But the thing is, all the other sports are still there for those who want to watch them. And these X Games-type sports bring new people to the Games."
The stakes are high for NBC, which paid $4.4 billion for the rights to broadcast Olympic competitions through the 2020 Summer Games.
The network this year must compete against the likes of a new season of "American Idol," which Fox has counterprogrammed against the past few Winter Games.
NBC must also contend with a turnover in prime-time-friendly stars. Figure skating could be dinged by the recent retirement of fan favorite Johnny Weir (he'll be in the broadcast booth) and the nonparticipation of Vancouver gold medalist Evan Lysacek, out because of injury. Apolo Ohno, who electrified the last three Games with his short-track speed skating performances, will also be in the booth following his retirement.
Like a capable biathlete, NBC will have several other magazines in its rifle.
Shaun White, newly shorn, will bring his Flying Tomato act to Sochi--well, at least the flying part, as he tries to win gold in the snowboard halfpipe for the third straight Winter Olympics and also looks to make his mark in snowboard slopestyle. (At press time he was in the driver’s seat for a spot on the U.S. slopestyle team, which involves a series of tricks as boarders and skiers make their way down a mountain course.)
Figure skating will offer some chances to mint new stars with up-and-comers such as two-time national champion Ashley Wagner on the women’s side and, on the men’s side, reigning national champion
Max Aaron and Chicago wunderkind Jason Brown.
The U.S. will also be fielding a ski team rife with intrigue. The complicated, unorthodox Bode Miller, 36, will compete in what is almost surely his last Games, while women's superstar Lindsey Vonn is recovering from a serious knee injury and is a question mark for Sochi. Of the greatest relevance to NBC and its new-demographic ambitions is Mikaela Shiffrin, the 18-year-old slalom phenom who is the reigning World Cup champion despite having competed internationally for only three years, and who comes in bearing a host of expectations.