Sochi snow conditions create added challenge for athletes

Many athletes competing in the alpine and cross-country events at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi are having a difficult time dealing with the soft and slushy snow condtions. Others say the conditions are great for them.

Slushy, sticky snow great for some, terrible for others

Shirtless onlookers watch as Russia's Vladislav Lekomtcev races in the men's cross-country 20-kilometre race on Monday. Temperatures in Sochi are hovering at about 15 C. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Warm temperatures and a lack of snow are giving athletes at the Sochi Paralympics an extra challenge, and not all of them are thrilled about it..

Organizers insist that snowpack is sufficient at the mountain events for the Games, despite rain and a lack of snow in the forecast, and will last until the Games end on Sunday. The temperature is so warm

But warm temperatures — predicted to remain at about 15 C until the end of the Games — have made the snow that is there slushy and sticky. Man-made snow isn't an option because it's too warm for snow produced that way to freeze. 

"This snow is very difficult to ski. It does not slide," said Benoit Gilly, the head coach of France’s nordic team. “It's psychologically exhausting and hard to accept moving more slowly."

"They must realize that the conditions are the same for everyone and they must believe — all the time, all the time — that they cannot get annoyed and fight the snow."

"The hardest thing is to remain composed and ski calmly."

“I did as well as I could, given the conditions, and the temperature,” said Canadian cross-country skier Margarita Gorbounova, who finished fourth out of four competitors in the women’s 12.5-kilometre (visually impaired) on Monday.

“Everybody else was too chicken to compete in these conditions.”

They're also a challenge for wax technicians, who must experiment with several different wax combinations in an attempt to find one that works best in the rapidly changing snow type.

And yet for some athletes, including Canada’s Brian McKeever, who won gold in the men’s visually impaired 20K on Monday, the conditions are an advantage.

It's insanely hard to ski in these conditions, but we knew what to expect.- Brian McKeever, cross-country skier

McKeever was trailing behind in fourth place for the first half the race before setting a furious pace in the second half to overtake the leaders.

"In these kinds of conditions as [the snow is] breaking down, it's much faster to follow so it's hard for these guys to stay in front on a day like today,” he said. “It takes much more energy to lead. No matter who it was, if any of the three of us were leading, it would have been faster to follow.

"It's insanely hard to ski in these conditions, but we knew what to expect. We had a training camp in Arizona, so if you are roller skating in plus-42, this is nothing."

Alpine skiers especially vulnerable

During Sunday’s men’s sitting super-G, 14 racers failed to reach the finish line. The story was much the same in the standing classification, in which 12 athletes failed to finish, and in the visually impaired discipline, where only eight racers were able to post a score.

Canada’s Josh Dueck was among those who crashed hard near the end of the sitting super-G course. Dueck was in contention for a medal as he approached the finish line, but veered off course with a few gates to go and failed to recover in time.

On-course conditions have become so unpredictable that the competitors are now simply crossing their fingers for an early bib number in hopes of avoiding the ruts, chunks and holes that form as the race goes on.

Race results so far have shown that the majority of the medal winners are coming from the first dozen skiers down the hill.     

In the men’s sitting super-G, all three medallists came from the first nine skiers to race, including Canada's Caleb Brousseau, who started ninth and won bronze.

Canada team leader Mike Edwards said that sit-skiers will be especially hard pressed to perform if the spring thaw continues.

"It's especially hard for the sit-skiers because they rely so much on just their poles," said Edwards. 

"When all their propulsion is in their poles and they're sinking down, and when the snow takes them off-balance and they're tipping in their chair, it can make it very difficult."

Colder weather means harder snow and ice, both of which accelerate racing, but a fast course can cause more spills for seated athletes.

Skiers will be at it again on Tuesday, in the men’s and women’s super combined, the men’s 12.5K biathlon and women’s 10K biathlon.

Rain in the forecast prompted organizers to reschedule the men's and women's super combined events, starting the two stages half an hour later than planned.

With files from the Paralympic News Service


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