By Howard Fendrich
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Cross-country skiers are looking for precisely the right wax to cut through the mush. Jumpers are trying to land in snow that’s way too soft. Freestyle skiers and snowboarders are bailing out of their best tricks on courses that, even way up on the mountain, are melting under the Sochi sun.
Temperatures climbed well above 50 even on the Sochi Games’ highest hills, exposing huge patches of green around the mountain venues. If it wasn’t clear with the warmth on Monday, it became definitively so by the second afternoon of alarmingly balmy weather: The Winter Olympics have become the Warm Olympics.
Bode Miller went from pre-race favorite during training runs down an icy hill to eighth-place finisher when the downhill course got slushier Sunday. He was still second-guessing himself Tuesday for not trying a different ski setup.
“It would be a tough call to be like, ‘The weather is changing, we’re just going to go completely throw a dart in the dark and hope it hits.’ We had to stick with what we knew,” Miller said. “In hindsight, it was a mistake, because on training day, it was boilerplate ice and you needed a lot of edge. … And on race day, you needed to be more subtle, more smooth.”
Puffs of low-hanging, gray clouds caressed the peaks of nearby brown mountains covered with bare trees as Miller and other men’s Alpine racers adjusted to a Rosa Khutor course that went from slick to slushy, affecting the way skis react. At least they got in some official work Tuesday. Citing high temperatures, officials called off the training for the women in a bid to preserve the track for their downhill Wednesday, when it’s supposed to reach 50 degrees (10 Celsius).
Mauro Pini, who coaches World Cup overall champion Tina Maze, said “only the last two or three gates” would be slow. But he said it probably will be the softest downhill snow all season.
Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the local organizing committee, told The Associated Press that it hasn’t been warm enough to warrant tapping into reservoirs of snow stored near the mountain venues. Dismissing handwringing over the weather, he said: “It’s not a big surprise for us. We’re a subtropical city.”
Outdoor sports, of course, often find themselves at the mercy of Mother Nature. The last pre-Olympic World Cup weekend for Alpine skiing demonstrated that.
Too much snow scrapped training in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and fog forced cancellation of the last men’s downhill before Sochi — a race already moved from Germany because of a lack of snow. Women’s races shifted from one resort in Slovenia to another because there wasn’t enough snow — only to have rain and fog wipe out a giant slalom at the new spot.
Then there’s Alpine history at past Olympics. Four years ago, too-warm, too-wet weather in Whistler, British Columbia, delayed the start of racing. At Turin in 2006, the women’s super-G was postponed 24 hours, and the combined event was split over two days. Skiing at the Nagano games in 1998 waited for two days, and officials shoehorned nine races into 10 days, even staging more than one on a single day. At Sarajevo in 1984, both downhills were postponed.
Such experiences among the Alpine set means, according to International Ski Federation race referee Guenter Hujara, “People ask us (to) go and help them.”
So on Monday, Hujara said, one Alpine expert worked with Sochi’s Nordic combined event, and on Tuesday, someone shuttled to snowboarding to help prepare for the halfpipe final featuring Shaun White.
American snowboardcross athlete Alex Deibold came with eight boards, twice the number he usually travels with, so he and his wax technician have options.
“There’s these subtle differences that have a big effect,” Deibold said. “We’ve been doing a lot of testing since we’ve been here.”
Over at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, site of ski jumping and Nordic combined, an increase of even a handful of degrees can make landing more difficult.
“Holes and ruts form if the snow on the landing zone is not hard enough,” said Nordic combined athlete Wilhelm Denifl of Austria. “The snow becomes unstable, and if we are landing consistently in the same area, and at a high speed, the pressure associated with landing can make it unstable. And dangerous.”
At the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, three racers crashed in the soft snow during the men’s freestyle sprint Tuesday, and there were other tumbles a day earlier. In cross-country skiing and biathlon, teams of more than a dozen technicians work to figure out the precise amount of glide and grip for a changing surface, and that can separate a medalist from an also-ran.
When it comes to Alpine skiing, 2006 gold medalist Ted Ligety says soft snow is inconsistent, which can be less fair.
“It’s the same running first as it is to run 30th if it’s really good conditions. That’s really the main reason we like it icy. It’s also more consistent underfoot and it feels safer to push on, safer to push your body, push the line, push the skiing,” the American said.
After watching Ligety and Miller train, Sasha Rearick, the head U.S. men’s Alpine coach, explained how skis slide on a colder, harder slope, and turn on a warmer, softer one.
A racer who comes from a technical background, such as Miller, gets more help on the ice than the slush, Rearick said.
Asked whether he was surprised about the temperatures so far, Rearick chuckled.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here. This is still mild,” Rearick said. “It gets warmer.”
— AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf, Graham Dunbar, Mattias Karen, Tim Reynolds, Dennis Passa, Will Graves and Pat Graham in Krasnaya Polyana, and Jon Krawczynski and Steven Wilson in Sochi contributed to this report.