The Sochi Winter Olympics are melting under a heat wave

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEFebruary 14, 2014 

People lounge on the grass at the Olympic Park in Sochi, Russia, Thursday. Warm weather is threatening outdoor events at the Winter Olympics, forcing organizers to shuffle schedules and use reserve stockpiles of snow.

JAMES HILL — The New York Times

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — The effects could be seen Thursday from the coast of Sochi, where spectators were spotted sunbathing, to the mountains high above the city, where cross-country skiers raced in sleeveless jerseys.

“You sit outside in a T-shirt and shorts — that’s not winter,” said Christoph Sumann of the Austrian biathlon team. “You don’t know what to wear for the race.”

He settled on the thinnest T-shirt he could find. A teammate, he said, wore nothing beneath his racing uniform.

“It’s absolutely too warm for me,” he said. “I’m a winter guy.”

Then he’s in a bad spot. Most days here have brought bright sunshine and springlike temperatures.

“I’ve never seen it this warm at a Winter Games,” said Max Cobb, a senior official with the International Biathlon Union who has attended every Winter Olympics since 1992. Cobb was in constant radio contact with the crew spreading salt, meant to turn the slush into water, then back into ice.

“If we were competing now, the women would probably be in shorts and bibs and jogging bras,” Cobb said.

Weather for the 2014 Games has been a concern since the International Olympic Committee made Sochi the first host of the Olympics in a subtropical climate. The city sits on the Black Sea, and some of its promenades are lined by palm trees.

Organizers have long dismissed concerns about the warm weather. After a warm spell a year ago disrupted test events, they stockpiled huge mounds of snow, stashed it in shady spots and covered it with insulating material to help most of it last through the summer.

There seems to be enough snow, but the problem is the condition of the snow. Puddles of slush would complicate nearly all the outdoor events, jeopardizing contests for which Olympians had spent years training.

Organizers kicked into high gear Thursday to prevent that. In the middle of the night, machines covered the biathlon course with salt. Then, after the sun came up, a crew of 15 workers walked the 4-kilometer cross-country course, carrying buckets of large-grained salt. The workers sprinkled the salt onto the tracks in the manner of people feeding birds.

The men’s super combined Alpine ski race scheduled for Friday was moved to 10 a.m. local time from 11 a.m. to counter midday temperatures that were expected to approach the mid-50s. Afternoon temperatures at the RusSki Gorki Jumping Center, home of ski jumping and Nordic combined, reached 63 on Thursday. The competition manager there said the site had a deep base, partly because trucks had been sent into the mountains last month to fetch fresh snow.

At the jumping center, and every other mountain site, salt was being applied liberally.

“It would be really good if temperatures could dip down overnight, to get those perfect icy conditions,” said Jenny Wiedeke, communications manager for the FIS, the international ski federation that oversees skiing and snowboarding.

While blue sky and snow-capped peaks provided enticing backdrops, some of the sites seemed better suited for beach volleyball than for winter sports. Men without shirts walked toward the biathlon stadium, where officials had traded in their parkas for T-shirts. In a particularly ominous sign, mosquitoes were spotted.

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