Winter Olympics: ‘You’re going up the chairlift and you see these little tornadoes’

The Winter Olympics are supposed to be cold, of course. Just maybe not this cold.

Switzerland's Benjamin Weger feels the effects of the conditions after yesterday's Men's 12.5km Pursuit Final. Picture: Reuters/Murad Sezer

Wind and ice pellets left Olympic snowboarders simply trying to stay upright in conditions that many felt were unfit for competition, the best ski jumpers on the planet dealing with swirling gusts and biathletes aiming to shoot straight.

All around the games, athletes and fans are dealing with conditions that have tested even the most seasoned winter sports veterans.

Low temperatures have hovered in the single digits, dipping below zero fahrenheit with unforgiving gusts whipping at 45 mph (70 kph) making it feel much colder.

Organisers have shuffled schedules, and shivering spectators left events early.

The raw air sent hundreds of fans to the exits Sunday when qualifying was called off after women’s slopestyle devolved into a mess of mistakes, and yesterday’s final started 75 minutes late.

Of the 50 runs, 41 ended with a fall or a rider essentially giving up. The temperature dropped to 3 Fahrenheit, (-16C) with high winds.

American Jamie Anderson won the gold medal by watching most of her competitors struggle and then completing a conservative run that paled in comparison to her winning performance at the X Games just two weeks ago.

“It has to be absolutely petrifying, terrifying, being up that high in the air, and having a gust 30 mph coming sideways at you,” said United States Ski and Snowboard Association CEO Tiger Shaw.

Many of the snowboarders didn’t think they should have been out there.

“You’re going up the chairlift and you see these little tornadoes,” said Czech snowboarder Sarka Pancohova, who finished 16th, “and you’re like: ‘What is this?’”

At ski jumping, giant netting was set up to reduce the wind that can blow at three times the optimal velocity for the sport. It didn’t help all that much, though: The men’s normal hill final on Saturday was pushed back repeatedly and eventually finished after midnight.

“It was unbelievably cold,” said Japan’s Noriaki Kasai, competing at his record eighth Olympics. “The noise of the wind at the top of the jump was incredible. I’ve never experienced anything like that on the World Cup circuit. I said to myself: ‘Surely, they are going to cancel this.’”

Alpine skiing, meanwhile, still hasn’t been able to get started at all, leaving stars like Mikaela Shiffrin of the US and Aksel Lund Svindal of Norway waiting for their turn in the spotlight.

Each of the first two races on the programme — the men’s downhill Sunday, and the women’s giant slalom yesterday — were called off hours before they were supposed to begin. Both of those have been moved to Thursday, when things are supposed to become slightly more manageable.

Skier Tess Arbez became the second Irish athlete to have her Olympic debut delayed due to weather after the Giant Slalom was called off due to high winds and bitter cold at the Yongpyong Alpine Centre.

Arbez, 20, whose grandfather was born in Carlow and grew up in Dublin, is competing in two events in PyeongChang so will now make her Olympic debut in the Slalom tomorrow followed by Giant Slalom the next day.

“That is alpine skiing. Every time we have a lot of snow or it is raining or very windy they usually cancel it or move it so we are used to it,” she said. “I will have some free-skiing on the race slope tomorrow and don’t mind because the race is now on Thursday and I am already competing in slalom on Wednesday. It is no problem.”

The forecast predicts more high winds today and tomorrow, although temperatures are expected to climb to 26.

“I am pretty sure that soon,” men’s race director Markus Waldner said with a wry smile, “we will have a race.”

Until then, he and other officials are left trying to come up with contingency plans and ways to get the full 11-race Alpine programme completed before the Olympics are scheduled to close on February 25.

As it is, logistical complications are real concerns.

Waldner pointed out that he needs to figure out a way to get three men’s races — the combined, downhill, and super-G — completed by Friday because there is only one hotel right by the speed course at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre.

The male skiers need to vacate their rooms to make way for their female counterparts, whose speed events are supposed to begin Saturday.

“Now, it’s getting tight,” he said.

Even those attending indoor events have been tested. Long, cold waits for buses have left workers, media, and fans complaining.

Those involved in winter sports are used to this sort of thing, of course.

At the 2007 Alpine world championships in Sweden, for example, strong winds wiped out first three days of competition. At the 1993 world championships in Japan, the men’s super-G was never contested.

It can happen the other way, too.

At the 2010 Vancouver Games, the first two Alpine races were postponed because of rain and — get this — too-warm temperatures in the 40s (below 10 Celsius). The entire Alpine world championships slated for Spain in 1995 were rescheduled for a whole year later because of a lack of snow.

“That’s a piece of the puzzle that, I guess, fortunately or unfortunately is part of our world,” US Alpine men’s speed coach Johno McBride said. “You’re dealing with Mother Nature.”

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