Modern technology reduces need for natural ice and snow. WINTER OLYMPICS IN FIJI?
Calgary, Alberta — The idea that the Winter Olympics should be all earmuffs, new-fallen snow, and frost on the window pane just doesn't hold water anymore, crystalized or otherwise. And for those who still may have clung to such notions, the 15th Winter Games in this fair (and mostly mild) Albertan metropolis certainly dispelled them.
``I started to think this was the first summer Olympics where they were holding hockey, skiing, and bobsled competitions,'' said Frank Saville, chairman of Canada Olympic Park, one of three outdoor venues.
The Games which concluded here Sunday may be remembered as the Olympics that almost blew away, but they also were visited by spring-like temperatures and a near-complete absence of airborne snow, although there was plenty of the manmade variety where needed.
Since the Games were generally a success, one wonders how important Old Man Winter's presence really is to these quadrennial frolics on snow and ice.
Might the winter Olympics someday be held in Fiji, or Jamaica, or Mexico, all countries with athletes competing here?
The possibilities of this ever happening are extremely remote, to say the least, but maybe not inconceivable given the engineering, scientific, and technological developments that will continue to assist the hosts of these competitions.
Let's face it, Calgary's organizers might have been in a heap of trouble without a domed speed skating oval, a super-refrigerated luge and bobsled track, and a high-tech snowmaking breakthrough that made it much easier to keep skiable cover on the Alpine slopes and Nordic trails.
Ultimately - say in the year 2022, to pick a date - the Winter Games could exist in a manufactured indoor environment.
Ed Robinson, president of Snowmax Technologies, a firm that has assisted with the snowmaking for the Calgary Olympics, is aware of indoor skiing facilities being planned in Japan, Great Britain, and Australia, among other places.
The Japanese, pioneers of multi-decker golf driving ranges, are perhaps the most advanced in their preparations. Robinson says he has seen plans they have for a 10-story facility with a landscaped, corkscrewed ski slope.
You'd have to go a lot higher than that, though, to accommodate something like the men's downhill ski run - which here on Mount Allan stretches over 1.7 miles of terrain with a vertical rise of 2,800 feet. This, of course, would be the major obstacle to holding the Games in less wintry surroundings. Indeed, such numbers boggle the mind, and make the whole idea seem visionary in the extreme. But the technological advances we've already witnessed in the last few decades must surely make anyone stop short of stating flatly that it can't possibly ever happen.
Ice, of course, is something that can always be manufactured indoors. In fact, figure skating and hockey competitions were both included in the summer Olympics program before the Winter Games were created as a separate event in the 1920s.
Refrigeration systems, however, may some day be dispensed with altogether if a synthetic, ice-like surface which has already been developed and used in Europe can be refined.
In addition, various plastic materials, some like artificial turf, are already in fairly widespread use for the summer training of winter athletes. Ski jumpers are perhaps the chief beneficiaries of these materials.
For those traditionalists who cringe at the thought of removing natural elements from the Winter Games, the emergence of Snowmax, a nature-boosting product, is encouraging.
A Kodak Co. subsidiary markets these small white granules, which promote the formation of ice crystals at all snowmaking temperatures. These non-polluting, freeze-dried protein particles, which are mixed with the water shot from snowmaking guns, have been used extensively at the Olympic skiing venues.
Roughly 100 ski areas in the United States, Canada, and Europe now use the product. It has allowed the Calgary organizers to put down significant amounts of manmade snow when natural flakes have been very sparse. The snow produced is drier, more durable, and less susceptible to icing than regular artificial snow.
There turned out to be no need for the Olympic organizers to mobilize the National Guard to truck in snow, as has happened at some previous Winter Olympics and was once anticipated here. With a good base, the only snowmaking that was necessary was for cosmetic and touchup purposes.
The manufacturers of Snomax believe their product can expand skiing opportunities in countries like England and Italy, where marginal winter temperatures rule out or complicate artificial snowmaking.
This doesn't mean, however, that snowmaking guns will soon dot tropical hillsides. ``Our tests have shown that you cannot alter the melting point of ice,'' says Robinson.
After witnessing Calgary's meteorological quirks, Olympic officials may be inclined to look more closely than ever at the weather of potential host cities.
But wherever you go, of course, there are no guarantees - so the race to artificially winterize the great outdoors, or indoors, is sure to continue.