Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Warm weather has Olympics organizers scrambling

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It's supposed to be "Snowtime" for the Winter Olympians gathered on Canada's western seashore awaiting Friday's start to the Games. But springlike conditions have left organizers scrambling to complete courses for freestyle skiing and snowboarding events at Cypress Mountain, where the white stuff is being delivered by truck and helicopter this week rather than clouds.
The mother's milk of outdoor sports has bypassed the 3,000-foot mountain, which will host the women's moguls Saturday and the rest of the freestyle and snowboard events throughout the Games. But organizers are committed to staying the course.
"Come hell or rain water, we'll be at Cypress," Peter Judge, the chief executive officer for the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, told reporters this week.
Mounds of snow were dumped on the mogul course Tuesday morning under brilliant sunshine.
"We're stuck in an extraordinary period of super-warm weather that just will not quit," meteorologist David Jones of Environment Canada lamented.
Weather has become the story on the eve of the opening ceremonies in the largest, wettest, warmest metro area to play host to a Winter Games.
"When you have an Olympics four miles from the Pacific Ocean, things will happen," said Weather Channel personality Jim Cantore.
Or, in this case, not happen.
Cypress Mountain's barren slopes can be seen from downtown Vancouver, 30 minutes away. As seagulls swooped in along Burrard Inlet this week, images of quaint Alpine villages of Olympics past seemed a distant memory.
Officials of the Vancouver Organizing Committee, or VANOC, took the extraordinary steps of barring media from watching training Monday for mogul skiing at Cypress. Tim Gayda, vice president of sports for the organizers, said they took the action to ensure the safety of workers at the site but also to allow "us to focus on getting the field of play as best we can for the athletes' first day of training."
Ski racing in the Whistler/Vancouver region always has been an iffy proposition.
In 2008, event organizers canceled World Cup freestyle competition at Cypress because of blinding fog, rain and warm temperatures.
While Whistler — two hours and another several hundred feet of elevation farther up the Sea to Sky Highway — has ample snow for Alpine, biathlon, cross-country and Nordic combined events, fears of what is known as the "Pineapple Express" affecting conditions there also can't be dismissed.
Such a condition blankets an area with warm, wet weather from the South Pacific. That, meteorologist Jones said, would be a worst-case scenario.
While forecasters aren't expecting to get hit by heavy rains, all computer model projections suggest the warm trend that started in late December to continue throughout much of the Games.
"This has just been a mild persistent storm track that won't go away," Jones said.
Weather or not, Vancouver organizers say they're ready.
Starting in November they began stockpiling snow. They converted 21 million gallons of water at higher elevations and have brought it to Cypress by truck and helicopter to create courses for mogul, half pipe and parallel giant slalom snowboarding.
Environment Canada, the country's national weather service, has contributed some of its top meteorologists, as well as modern weather tracking equipment.
But all the expertise in the world can't outfox Mother Nature. The warmest January on record because of an El Niño condition has left Olympic officials reeling. While work continued on the Cypress courses this week, the spectators' area remained an unsightly mix of dirt and mud.
"In Italy we skied on a pile of dirt," U.S. mogul skier Hannah Kearney said Monday. "This is already an improvement over that. We've skied in rain, we've skied in snow. Hot weather, cold weather. So, we're ready for it."
Three-time Olympian Shannon Bahrke of Tahoe City added: "We're not basketball players, where it is 72 degrees all the time and the floors are swept. We're outdoor athletes."
Vancouver isn't the first Olympic city to face such a situation. In 1964 at Innsbruck, Austrian soldiers carved 20,000 blocks of ice from the mountains and carted them to the luge/bobsled track. They also carried 52,000 cubic yards of snow to the Alpine ski courses. Then the Tyrolean capital got hit by a downpour 10 days before the Games, so the army packed down the slopes by hand and foot.
Weather has vexed humanity since at least 650 B.C., when the Babylonians initiated rudimentary climate forecasting.
"It's the one thing that we can't control," said Cantore, who arrived in Vancouver this week to report on conditions from various Olympic sites. But he said he remains optimistic the weather won't pose an impossible challenge.
"The Winter Olympics aren't meant to be perfect." he said.


Post a Comment