The Winter Games are upon us, which means we're about to fill up the glaring televised sports gap that stretches from Super Bowl Sunday to March Madness. Thing is, most of the sports you'll see in Sochi are ones you catch just every four years, so you’ll probably remember only a few faces and have a vague recollection of some crazy events you watched back in early 2010. Don’t worry, we’re basically in the same boat. But we recently brushed up on the basics–the big events, the favorites, the underdogs, and some quick history–to put together this Olympics primer. We didn’t quite get to some sports, like curling, but that one’s more fun to figure out with your friends over a beer, anyway.

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Alpine Skiing

The Event/Background:

Various downhill skiing events, like the super-G, slalom, and giant slalom, always make up a big chunk of coverage during the Winter Games. The different events focus on different skill sets. The super-G is all about speed, as skiers careen down a clifflike mountain at generally dangerous and unadvisable speeds. The flipside to this is the slalom, which puts more stress on technical skills on a much flatter course, as competitors navigate an endless number of gates with quick-turning maneuvers. Events are usually decided by tenths or even hundredths of a second, so the smallest of mishaps can knock a skier off the podium. For gold, perfection is necessary.

The American Athletes:

This time around, Ted Ligety is the U.S.’s greatest hope for a medal on the men’s side of the draw. Ligety thrives in the giant slalom, having already won two World Cup events in it this season. Still, don’t count him out in other events, since he also took home the gold at the 2013 World Championships in the super-G and combined events. Ligety also already has an Olympic gold medal in combined under his belt, an upset he pulled off at a mere 21 years old, in 2006–the same year Bode Miller was hyped as the face of the American Olympic team, only to party hard for two weeks and return completely medal-less. Now, a more mature, married Miller is headed for his final Olympics at age 36, and after a successful and more reserved 2010 Olympics (three medals–one of each), it’s safe to say he won’t waste his last Olympic chance slamming down vodka (the local drink of choice) at the bars.

Other Notables:

Some of the biggest foreign medal threats hail from the Alps, of course. Dominant skiers Felix Neureuther (Germany) and Marcel Hirscher (Austria) are some of the best-known competitors. Hirscher has won the skiing World Cup title the past two years, while Neureuther is a six-time winner on the World Cup circuit, including a narrow victory over Hirscher in an early-January slalom event. As for the women, the injury of Lindsey Vonn has brought a significant shakeup to the U.S. women’s team, with 18-year-old slalom champ Mikaela Shiffrin likely to step into the limelight in Vonn’s absence.

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Short-track Speed Skating

The Event/Background:

An Olympic event since 1992, short-track speed skating is the smaller, often more exciting offshoot of regular speed skating. On such a big stage, short-track is able to rope in casual viewers with dramatic races on tight courses that put skaters uncomfortably close to each other, jockeying for position and trying not to get into catastrophic crashes that will likely end their Olympic-medal dreams. The South Koreans have historically dominated the sport, collecting 37 overall medals (Canada is second, with 25), including 19 golds; Canada and China are second with seven apiece.

The American Athletes:

After three Olympics in which he was the face of American short track, Apolo Anton Ohno is set to go to Sochi as a commentator. The new athlete to watch: J.R. Celski. Already a two-time Olympic medalist, the 23-year-old was the first to qualify for the American short-track Olympic team. It’s also worth noting that Celski grabbed his first two bronze medals in Vancouver at the tender age of 19, only months after suffering a massive gash to his left thigh in a race. If Celski can avoid freak injuries like that, he’s got a great chance at eventually dethroning Ohno (eight medals) as the most decorated American Winter Olympian in history. Celski and the American team will have to build on a successful World Cup event performance in November in Kolomna, Russia, in which Celski took two personal medals—a gold and a bronze—and was also part of a gold medal-winning relay team.

Other Notables:

Based on four World Cup events that date back to September, it appears Charles Hamelin of Canada may be the biggest threat, having won six individual races while taking part in two more relay victories for Team Canada. Victor An, the former South Korean who became a Russian citizen after being left off the Olympic team in 2010, has also been all over the podium lately for his new country. Don’t count the South Koreans out, either, but expect them to really thrive in women’s speed skating, where skaters like Shim Suk-Hee and the 21-year-old Park Seung-Hi have a chance to dominate the competition.

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Speed Skating

The Event/Background:

A mainstay event at the Winter Games, speed skating dates back to 1924, when the first official Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix, France. Race distances range from 500 to 10,000 meters; and unlike short-track, speed skaters race peacefully—but also frantically against the clock. As with skiing, winning and losing at the top level comes down to fractions of a second, making the importance of a timely and explosive start imperative, while perfect form and execution throughout the race is also a must.

The American Athletes:

At 31, Shani Davis, the speed skater who allegedly inspired the Frozone character in The Incredibles, is headed for what's likely his last Olympics. Davis has already compiled one of the best careers in the sport’s history, collecting four Olympic medals (2 gold, 2 silver) over the course of his career, while also amassing a whopping 84 individual medals in World Cup competition. And though he seems ready to move on to other things in the coming years, right now he has a chance to put the finishing touches on a brilliant legacy. Davis will look to become the first Olympian to win the same event in three straight Games, as he tries to snag his third gold medal in the 1,000 meters.

Other Notables:

Davis isn’t alone–he’s actually had the pressure put on by teammates Brian Hansen and Joey Mantia, both of whom barely finished behind Davis by less than half a second in the U.S. trials (Hansen lost by 0.01, Mantia by 0.36). The Dutch are also ones to watch, with skaters like Michel Mulder and Sven Kramer, who still holds the world record for best times in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters.

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Freestyle Skiing

The Event/Background:

Combining time and judges’ scoring, moguls freestyle skiing is one of the most engaging and spectacular events at the Winter Olympics. Competitors combine an uncanny ability to navigate massive moguls with the exceedingly rare skill of vaulting off a ramp to do elaborate tricks. The way these daredevils throw their bodies around with reckless abandon—and live—might make you think skiing injuries aren’t that easy to come by. Don’t be fooled–you’ll be in the ER if you try anything like this. Historically, the U.S. has done well in Freestyle events, setting the pace with 14 medals and five golds since the event’s inception in 1992.

The American Athletes:

The biggest story for the Americans might be the Wilson brothers, Bryon and Bradley, who are both on the country’s A-team for Sochi. Bryon came away with a bronze in Vancouver in 2010, and younger brother Bradley enjoyed his first freestyle World Cup win last year in Inawashiro, Japan. As fun as the sibling story is, also keep an eye out for the other top American competitors, including Sho Kashima and Patrick Deneen, who took two bronze medals at the 2013 Freestyle World Ski Championships (FWSC). Deneen was the only American to medal in moguls or aerials.

Other Notables:

Looking at freestyle skiing as a whole, more of these events are on the rise at the Olympics, as ski cross (head-to-head racing) made its debut in 2010, while ski half-pipe and slopestyle will be first-time events in Sochi this year. That could mean more medals for the Americans, as David Wise (half-pipe) and Tom Wallisch (slopestyle) both won gold at the aforementioned 2013 FWSC. As for threats from around the globe, look for Canadian Alexandre Bilodeau to defend his moguls title, as his fellow countryman Mikael Kingsbury makes it interesting. The Chinese are often kings of the aerials event, and look for Frenchmen Jean-Frederic Chapuis and Bastien Midol to contend for victory in the new ski cross event.

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Ice Hockey

The Event/Background:

The only big-money sport you’ll find at the Winter Olympics, hockey has always been the backbone of the Games, often closing out the event with the men’s final. It’s featured plenty of great moments and players–there was the American triumph over the powerhouse Soviets in the Miracle on Ice back in 1980, and ever since the NHL began shutting down to accommodate the Olympics in 1998, the tournament has featured professional superstars from all over the world (well, the colder parts anyway). The 2010 Olympics were finished off in dramatic fashion when Canada’s Sidney Crosby buried the winning goal in overtime against the U.S. in the gold-medal game.

The American Athletes:

As good of a run as the Americans made in 2010, which included winning their first five Olympic games, one of them over Canada in pool play, it still came to an end in that ill-fated rematch for the gold. It was a repeat of 2002, when the Americans were an unexpected entrant into the gold-medal game, also only to lose to the Canadians. The good news is that the U.S. might pose the biggest threat to that hockey-crazed country to the north, with a trio of NHL starting goalies, such as Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) and Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings, the goalie who propelled his team to Stanley Cup victory in 2012). Players like Joe Pavelski (San Jose Sharks), Ryan Callahan (New York Rangers), and Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche) provide scoring power on the other end of the ice, making the Americans a formidable gold medal contender.

Other Notables:

This is still the Canadians’ tournament to win if they play up to their potential, but if they don’t, the U.S. or another country is sure to seize the opportunity and possibly even keep Canada off the podium, as was what happened in 1998 and 2006. With the Olympics being played out on Russian ice, the home team isn’t a bad (slight) underdog to bet on, and no one’s going to be surprised if a stacked team with players like Alex Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh Penguins), and Ilya Kovalchuk (former New Jersey Devil, before opting to stay home in and skate in the Russian KHA) takes home the gold. Don’t count out the Swedes either, winners of the ’98 and ’06 tournaments, or the Finns, medal winners (although no golds) in four of the past five Games. As for the women, the Americans will try to end a streak of three straight gold-medal game losses to Canada.

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Snowboarding – Half-Pipe

The Event/Background:

Initially added as a crossover from the Winter X Games, half-pipe snowboarding joined the Olympics in 1998 and has never looked back, sparking a ton of interest from viewers and drawing big, loud crowds at its events ever since. The sport is still young enough for its stars to be pulling out new tricks every four years–you never quite know what you’re about to see, which is how a visually spectacular sport like half-pipe is supposed to be. Seeing as snowboarding began as an American winter pastime in the 1970s, the U.S. has naturally been the world leader in snowboarding at the Winter Olympics, amassing 22 medals while no other country will enter Sochi with more than nine.

The American Athletes:

Shaun White has been the most recognizable name in snowboarding and extreme sports for years now. Despite his middling size, White is simply a freak of nature when he gets on a board of any kind–he’s collected dozens of gold medals in X Games competition in both snowboarding and skateboarding. When it comes to the Olympics, he’s already won gold in the half-pipe competition in 2006 and 2010, and still at just 27 years of age, he looks poised for a three-peat. Maybe the best challenger White will see is Louie Vito, another accomplished American snowboarder who’s a couple years younger and has really ramped up his training and discipline in the past couple years.

Other Notables:

On the women’s end of half-pipe, American snowboarder Chloe Kim would be a contender, well, if she were old enough to participate. The 13-year-old just finished third place in December at the 2013 Dew Tour Women’s Half-Pipe event. Until next time. Some big contenders include Australian Torah Bright and American Kelly Clark, who finished 1-2 respectively at the same Dew Tour event.

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Ski Jumping

The Event/Background:

A Winter Olympic classic, ski jumping is another event that’s been held at every Olympics since its inception in 1924. You probably know the basic idea of ski jumping–the horn blows and the guy at the top of that massive, steep ramp inexplicably pushes off, picks up as much speed as he can, and launches himself off the end of the ramp and down the mountain, basically turning himself into a human high school physics problem. The sport doesn’t get much air time outside the Olympics, but it’s terrifying (and fun) to watch, and something the vast majority of people are sensible enough to never attempt.

The American Athletes:

Don’t worry, the Americans will be represented, just know that if any American man can be in medal contention, it’ll be a huge success. The U.S. has only one ski jumping medal–a bronze. Nick Fairall may be the best hope to pull off such an upset, but that would be a massive surprise, since he’s never quite cracked the top 10 in international competition.

Other Notables:

Historically speaking, ski jumping has been a European-dominated sport, and with the exception of Japan’s more recently developed prowess, that generally still holds true today. Norway leads the way with 29 overall medals, although Finland has grabbed gold most often (10 times, out of 22 medals). Austria’s 23 medals are also notable, while everyone else is still trying to break into double digits. Look for Austria’s Gregor Schlierenzauer, the overall 2013 World Cup winner, to be the favorite. Norwegian 2013 runner-up Anders Bardal is also of note. Sochi 2014 will also be the first Olympics to feature women’s ski jumping, which should yield better results for the U.S. Last year’s ski jumping world champ Sarah Hendrickson and Lindsey Van are both strong medal contenders.

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Bobsled

The Event/Background:

Every Winter Olympics has seen bobsled events, minus 1960 when organizers decided not to incur the massive cost of constructing a track. Like many winter events, bobsled races are high-speed and often decided by hundredths of a second. The most vital part of the race is right at the start, when teams need to be ready to go at the sound of the beep and explode off the starting line. Pushing the sled (450-plus pounds) off the line quickly and getting all four members of the team in the sled after getting the proper momentum is imperative. From there, it’s mostly in the hands of the pilot, who keeps the sled going as fast as possible without losing control.

The American Athletes:

The Americans won the four-man bobsled event in 2010, and will look to defend the title in Sochi. Half the crew is returning, including pilot Steve Holcomb and pusher Curt Tomasevicz. Chris Fogt and Steve Langton were selected to round out the crew. Bobsled is a sport in which the strongest survive, and several top-tier, dedicated athletes are brought in from other sports to get through the course as quickly as possible. Holcomb and Fogt hail from military backgrounds, while Langton and Tomasevicz were each involved in high-level college sports. They’re poised to be one of the top contenders.

Other Notables:

In four-man, watch for the Germans, Russians, and Swiss to be vying for the gold with the Americans. On the women’s side, the big story has been how Olympic sprinter Lolo Jones and track star Lauryn Williams will fare on the Olympic bobsled team. Will these women confirm that the Cool Runnings idea of making Jamaican sprinters into bobsled athletes was more practical than crazy?

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Snowboard Cross

The Event/Background:

Snowboard cross was first introduced to the 2006 Torino Olympics, demonstrating another Olympic-X Games crossover. The event is extremely intense–it features an elaborate course with several turns, moguls and jumps, and all of it needs to be done right alongside the competition, kind of like a combination of short track speed skating and motocross. It’s high-speed, involves plenty of acrobatic maneuvering and could feature a race-changing crash at just about any moment. So, it should keep your attention.

The American Athletes:

The guys to watch are Seth Wescott and Nate Holland. Wescott has dominated Olympic snowboard cross, taking gold in 2006 and 2010. Still, Wescott is 38 years old and should be near the end of his days as an extreme-sports athlete. Holland isn’t much younger, actually, but he’s still been making noise on an international stage more recently than Wescott–he took gold at the 2012 X Games snowboard cross event (it was dropped from the 2013 X Games).

Other Notables:

The American men have had a good handle on the event in recent years (they swept the podium at the 2012 X Games), but look for international competition to be vying for the gold on the women’s side of the draw. Aside from the dangerous Bulgarian racer Alexandra Jekova, even bigger threats hail from Canada–Dominique Maltais took the 2012 X Games Finals, and Maelle Ricker will look to grab her second Olympic gold medal in Sochi.

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Cross Country Skiing

The Event/Background:

This one is basically long distance running for the Scandinavian countries, and not coincidentally, they’ve always dominated cross country events. Norway leads the medal and gold counts by an impressive margin (96 medals, 35 gold), but neighbors Sweden (63, 27 gold) and Finland (73, 19 gold) aren’t too far off the pace. Men’s race distances range from short one-kilometer sprints to 50-kilometer marathons, with the latter races taking more than two hours to finish.

The American Athletes:

Like ski jumping, this is a tough one for the Americans–the event is as old as the Winter Olympics itself, but the U.S. has been held to just one medal all time. Still, the U.S. will be represented by some of the best underdogs in the world, like Vermont native Andy Newell. Newell competes in sprint events and has reached the podium in three World Cup events, plus he finished a surprising fifth overall in sprinting for the 2012-13 season. Don’t count on an upset, but don’t count it out, either.

Other Notables:

The Norwegians dominated the 2010 Games in Vancouver, collecting three gold medals and nine overall. Don’t expect Sochi to be much different, as Norway’s Petter Northug is still the man to beat–Northug collected four medals (two gold) in Vancouver and continued his mastery of the sport with his second World Cup overall cross country title in 2013. Getting in Northug’s way, watch for the highly decorated Swede Dario Cologna to be another big medal threat. On the women’s end, Kikkan Randall may be America’s most realistic hope for a cross country medal–she’s a seasoned veteran with recent success on the World Cup circuit, but once again, it’ll be tough to beat the Scandinavians at their own game.

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