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It may have been the surest sign yet that the Sochi Games have turned into the Spring Olympics; a skier in Friday’s 15-kilometre cross country race competed in a T-shirt and shorts.
With the temperature in Sochi hitting 17C under warm sunny skies on Friday, the Olympic slogan “Hot. Cool. Yours.” has taken on new meaning. Sochi has been baking in sunshine since the start of the Olympics and the snow at the mountain venues is beginning to thin. Organizers insist the conditions have not caused any problems and they point to the Vancouver Olympics where weather was an issue as well.
“At the same time in Vancouver we had four days of rain and then it was incredibly hot,” IOC executive director Gilbert Felli said Friday. "You remember the problems we had in Cypress Mountain? The Games went wonderfully but there wasn't a centimetre or a flake of snow in Vancouver, so I don't really see the difference between Sochi and Vancouver from that point of view… It is great to see families ambling around the Olympic Park and blending in and obviously it will attract more people when it is sunny and warm, rather than when it is cold and wet and nasty.”
Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the local organizing committee, said no events have been adversely affected. All necessary measures “are in place and we are absolutely confident that despite any weather condition the field of play will be good enough to fit the standard of the International Federations that organize the competitions,” he said Friday.
The warm weather certainly had an impact on Friday’s cross country race. Several athletes raced in T-shirts, ploughing their way through slushy, sloppy snow. The air temperature at the start of the race was 10.1C and the temperature of the snow was right at the freezing mark, although the sun made it feel much warmer.
"I became a winter athlete to do my sport in winter, not in summer. That was definitely the warmest race of my career," said Germany’s Axel Teichmann who placed eighth.
"Imagine running on the spot, in a sauna, for 45 minutes,” added Britain’s Andrew Young who came 37. “It was just horrible."
The snow conditions hurt the four Canadians in the field. Team technicians failed to apply the proper wax leaving the Canadians literally stuck at times.
Alex Harvey said his skis were so slow he could barely glide at all and he dropped out of the race after 10-kilometres.
“I could climb with them, then get dropped instantly on the downhill. I just decided to pull the plug,” he said afterward. The team has eight technicians whose job it is to test waxing on special skis before the race. “They are human too they make mistakes too and I guess today they made a mistake,” said Harvey.
"I don’t think there is anyone more disappointed now than the wax technicians," said coach Justin Wadsworth."They really feel something like this." He added that the team is trying to figure out what went wrong so they can get things right for the races coming up, particularly the relays where Canada has hopes of taking medals.
Devon Kershaw came 35th, Ivan Babikov 39th and Graeme Killick placed 65th.
The warm weather has impacted other events in the mountains. The hot sun and melting snow meant the course in the ski slopestyle competition changed throughout the day during competition this week, forcing athletes to make some quick adjustments as they moved from qualifying rounds in the morning to finals in the afternoon. “Everyone loves spring skiing,” said Dara Howell who won the gold medal in the women’s event.
Friday’s men’s super combined race, where the thermometer hit 14C the downhill portion of the downhill-slalom event, was held an hour earlier – 10 am – for fear that a later start would risk mushy snow. The forecast for Saturday is 13C, though expected cloudy conditions may slow the melting.
After the downhill portion of the race, Bode Miller of the United States, who was one of the favourites for a podium finish but finished 6th, said “We knew the weather was going to be a factor, they moved the start up to minimize the effects, but in a way they maximized it. If you start at 11, everyone has crappy conditions.”
On Thursday, Jean-Philippe Le Guellec of Shannon, Que., who is considered the strongest member of Canada’s biathlon team, in part blamed soggy snow for his 35th place finish in the 20km biathlon race.
“It’s definitely slushy out there,” he said. “You can see it’s not dipping below zero. That’s what makes the big difference. It’s really hot during the day and not going down at night. That makes for really hard conditions…When it’s slushy, it’s a lot more muscular.”
The one thing the weather has helped is attendance. While there were lots of empty seats at some mountain venues earlier in the Games, the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park was packed for the men’s ski slopestyle final on Thursday. Many spectators wore T-shirts giving the small stadium an almost beach-party like atmosphere.