Russia is not one great frozen expanse in the winter, some of Sochi's Olympic athletes are learning to their annoyance.
A man was spotted jogging Tuesday morning on the promenade along the Mzymta River in the mountain village just below the Sochi Olympic alpine centres. Nothing unusual about that, except he was in his shorts. Elsewhere, hats, mitts and scarves are notably absent.
Yes, it is warm at the Olympics – too warm – putting unwanted emphasis on the first word of the Games’ motto: “Hot. Cool. Yours.”
Rising temperatures don’t much matter in the so-called coastal cluster, on the Black Sea, where the ice for events such as speed skating and hockey is artificially chilled. But it’s turning into a problem 50kms upriver, in the majestic Western Caucasus mountains, where the snow getting mushy – and melting – at the alpine centres.
On Tuesday, as the temperature in the mountain towns of Krasnaya Polyana and Rosa Khutor reached 11 degrees C – it was cooler at the top of the gondola lifts – race officials cancelled Tuesday’s women’s downhill training run to "preserve” the course for the big Wednesday race.
A few other training runs were either cancelled or shifted as the snow deteriorated. The half-pipe competition schedule was moved from the afternoon until after dark, in the hope that snow and ice would remain intact for the competition. Before that happened, U.S. snowboarding star Shaun White said, “The flat bottom is just sand and mush.”
Speed racers found themselves changing their skis and strategies to cope with the softening snow. In Tuesday’s cross-country races, some competitors were pumping away with their sleeves rolled up, flesh exposed.
Alexandre Bilodeau, who won gold in moguls on Monday night, attributed his shaky first run in the final to the deteriorating snow. "The snow was very soft, a bit like in Vancouver," he said. "We skied on the rock-hard [snow] all week and the last two days it's become very soft. You really needed to adapt and that's complicated. We've seen so many crashes that normally don't happen…I had to be more neutral, less aggressive. Or the mogul [collapses] under you.”
Bode Miller, the American skier who won three medals in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, noted in a super combined training run on Tuesday that the racing course has become less icy, with softer snow. The speed racers prefer hard, icy conditions, which make the course faster and more consistent. “The conditions have changed,” he said. “Now it has become a completely different race course.”
While no racers pronounced the snow conditions insurmountable or outright dangerous – training runs routinely get cancelled on the day before a race – that could change as the temperatures rise. In the mountain towns, the temperature is forecast to hit 18 degrees C on Thursday before cooling down somewhat, and the wrong sort of precipitation – rain – may come on the weekend.
Sochi officials claimed not to be concerned about the balmy weather. They noted that Sochi and the surrounding area have the warmest winters in Russia and that precautions have been taken. Last year, vast quantities of snow were stored under insulated tarps in the mountains. That snow is being shoveled onto the race pistes. Snow-making equipment is ubiquitous.
At a press conference at the coastal cluster, Sochi organizing committee spokeswoman Alexandra Kosterina said warm temperatures were factored into the Olympic equation. “We’ve tested it already, last year during the test events when we had very warm temperatures,” she said. “One of the measures we have in place is snow preservation, snow that was stored from the previous season.”
The Winter Games, which opened on Friday, are on track to become the warmest in Olympic history. The Vancouver Olympics were also very warm, especially at the snowboard and freestyle skiing venues. If Sochi keeps heating up, Olympic officials may resist awarding the winter Games to coastal cities in temperate climates.
With files from Shawna Richer in Sochi