The 8,000-seat Adler Arena sits just steps away from the majestic Black Sea, but speed skaters at the Winter Olympics can't help remark on one peculiarity in the building's design: It feels like they are skating in the Netherlands, not Russia. And that complicates things.
The building's decor – from its orange seats to its orange padding around the track to the yellow-orange piping running along the ceiling – makes Sochi's speed skating oval look like it was designed specifically for the Dutch.
And since the famously orange-clad Dutch are a world power in long-track speed skating, it's not something that sits well among the skaters. It's the sport's equivalent to painting a baseball stadium in Yankee pinstripes, or a hockey rink in the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadiens.
"Come on Russians! Make it red or something. Don't help these guys out. The last thing the Dutch need is home field advantage," exclaimed U.S. speed skater Patrick Meek after competing in 5,000-metre race on Saturday. "The building is a little too orange for my tastes."
In fact, it was a Dutchman who oversaw the building of the Sochi oval. Bertus Butter, who has designed several tracks around the world, was brought in by the Russians a few years ago to help out on the design and construction.
Coincidentally, the event saw a Dutch sweep in Sochi's House of Orange on Saturday.
Superstar Sven Kramer took the gold medal, with a time of 6:10.76, followed by countrymen Jan Blokhuijsen (6:15.71) and Jorrit Bergsma (6:16.66). Kramer leads a field of talented skaters from the Netherlands into Russia in the hunt for multiple medals for the Netherlands.
In Vancouver, the orange army that followed the Dutch were easy to spot, given their garb. Though they blend more into the background of the Adler Arena this time, legions of them turned out Saturday.
Canadian speed skater Mathieu Giroux, who was using the 5,000 Saturday as a tune-up for his other events, including his specialty the 1500-metres, said he wasn’t bothered too much by the orange interior around him, but said it did stick out for the athletes.
“It’s kind of weird,” Giroux said, noting that Sochi has chosen several bright colours for its venues and clothing, along with light blue, bright green and pink. “It’s like any colour possible,” he said of the palette on display. Giroux placed 22nd with a time of 6:35.77, in an event that is not his strongest suit.
However the orange isn’t the only concern for the skaters. The sticky ice at the Adler is more of an issue. Being next to the Black Sea has led to humid conditions and softer ice, which can make for less glide that speed skaters thrive on.
Vancouver faced similar challenges with its venue in 2010, since being at sea level also creates slower ice due to atmospheric pressure that changes the way the water freezes in minuscule ways.
“It is like Vancouver,” Giroux said of the ice. “Because the pressure of the air, obviously it’s a bit slower. And in the long distances, you can see that everyone is losing a bit of timing in the end. It doesn’t provide that glide.”
In a tune-up race earlier this week, Giroux said the skaters had to be careful to not put too much pressure on their stride since the ice was slightly brittle and breaking. However, ice crews in Sochi have been working feverishly over the past few days to soften the ice, and the athletes said they had noticed a difference.
“They’ve done a great job I think,” said Meek. “The ice is really smooth, level. As long as it remains the same [throughout the competition] that’s all we could ask for as a skater, that it’s fair and consistent.”
Slow ice doesn’t necessarily present an advantage, since all skaters race the same track. But it does require some adjustments.
“It doesn’t glide. It feels like you take a push and you don’t just go anywhere,” said Meek. “You can see the Black Sea from this building, and you can’t fight that. You can put some fans in [for humidity], and you can almost hear them when no one else is in here. It’s just humid…. It’s just kind of the reality what we’ve got to deal with.”