Sochi organizers prepare for all conditions
SOCHI, Russia — The sun shines brightly as a gentle breeze rustles palm trees along the shore. The forecast calls for a mostly clear sky with mild temperatures through the week.
Welcome to the Winter Olympics.
The 2014 Sochi Games will take place 1,000 miles south of Moscow, at a Black Sea resort that qualifies as one of only a few Russian cities with a subtropical climate.
If that seems less than hibernal, the organizers insist they can stage a successful competition no matter what kind of weather there is over the next month.
Their "Guaranteed Snow" program involves millions of dollars in meteorological and snow-making technology. Just to be sure, they have also called upon shamans to pray for flurries.
"And its working!" Dmitry Chernyshenko, head of the organizing committee, recently tweeted.
Over the last seven days, storms have blanketed the nearby Caucasus mountain range where skiing, snowboarding and sliding events will take place. Still, the region has a history of warm spells that can arrive overnight.
"It's obviously a concern," U.S. skier Ted Ligety said. "It's something we're going to have to deal with when we get there."
This is not the first time the Winter Games have been held in less-than-frigid weather. As recently as 2006, Turin, Italy, played host with its humid, subtropical climate. Four years ago, the days were warm and rainy in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia.
Like both of those cities, Sochi will divide the competition between arenas in the city and outdoor sites at higher elevations.
Weather should not be a concern for the skaters, curlers and hockey players competing in five venues that make up the "coastal cluster." Inside the Ice Cube Curling Center, "we check for humidity, dew and temperature, as these are all factors that affect the condition of the ice," said Mark Callan of Britain, one of the officials in charge of the venue.
Short-track speedskater J.R. Celski explained that the racing surface is "really determined by the rink itself and the generators below the ice."
The mountains are far more vulnerable.
In Vancouver, rain damaged the moguls course at a venue overlooking the city. Organizers employed trucks and helicopters to bring snow from higher elevations.
"When the conditions are variable, at times it can be more about surviving," halfpipe snowboarder Kelly Clark said. "There's less time you get to focus on your tricks and more time you have to think about staying upright."
The Caucasus range — about 30 miles north of Sochi — proved last year that it can be a tricky locale for winter athletes.
Some test events had to be canceled. Others, such as the ski halfpipe, took place in less-than-stellar conditions. "It was really rainy and slushy," U.S. athlete Maddie Bowman recalled.
Shortly thereafter, Sochi began preparing for the worst.
Its make-it-work program features a network of more than 30 Doppler radar and weather stations that collect data every 10 minutes. On the slopes, 431 snow-making machines stand at the ready.
If all else fails, organizers have stored 710,000 cubic meters of last winter's snowfall under immense thermal blankets, keeping the mounds cool and largely intact over the summer.
Those reserves might come in handy at a low-elevation ski jumping site that Sochi officials claim is the warmest in Winter Games history. "There will be enough snow for all competitions," said Sergey Bondarenko, the head of sports functions. "We have experience to deal with all weather conditions."
Organizers have felt especially optimistic since storms began rolling into the area last October, providing what one international ski federation official called "a good start."
By mid-December, the slopes had 20 inches of coverage and Russia's chief forecaster was expecting more. Chernyshenko told the Itar-Tass news agency that he and the rest of the organizing committee could finally exhale.
By then, the Russians had already turned to a higher power. The shamans of the Altai region participated in the torch relay and held a special ceremony to pray for Sochi.
They might have prayed too hard — in recent weeks, forecasters have begun warning of the potential for avalanches or a "snow cyclone" that could cause visibility problems on the slopes.
Fifty avalanche guns have been installed to dissipate excessive accumulations.
"We are ready for whatever may be," said Valery Lukyanov, the Games' weather forecast manager.
Arriving in the mountain cluster last weekend, the Japanese alpine team was impressed by the conditions. "The snow is quite thick and in quite good condition," said Toshimasa Furukawa, a former Olympic skier and the team's deputy chef de mission.
Still, Furukawa noted the region's history of unseasonable weather, adding: "We hope it will stay good."