On frozen runs, athletes find ways to warp speed

World records keep falling.

To stand at the bottom of the Olympic downhill run here is to understand that success at the Winter Games comes from equal parts skill and insanity.

The word "steep" fails to capture even the slightest sense. It is a precipice, and after taking a moment to comprehend how a human could descend it with anything other than a pair of crampons and a strong rope, the realization dawns that the Winter Olympics are perhaps the most mind-numbing display of physics in all of sport.

Sprinters will sprint, and cyclists will pedal, but neither can even approach the power and speed generated here by gravity or by sinew and blade, as athletes move through a world seemingly devoid of friction or common sense.

At these Games in particular, the limits of human capability are being pushed, probed, and strained almost beyond comprehension. From the Olympic Oval to luge track, athletes have never gone faster. The results are the real Extreme Games, where 85 miles per hour is a common state of motion, and the Olympic motto of "faster, higher, stronger" should be changed to "faster, faster, faster."

Already, two speed-skating world records and one Olympic record had fallen before yesterday's women's 500-meter race - and all by substantial margins. When Claudia Pechstein of Germany beat her previous world record in the 3,000 meters by three seconds, both the silver and bronze medalists topped her old mark as well. And Jochem Uytdehaage of the Netherlands shaved more than four seconds off the 5,000-meter mark.

A master icemaker

The credit has gone, not to the athletes, but to the icemaker at the Utah Olympic Oval. Marc Norman has become something of an international celebrity for creating this fastest ice on earth. The key has been the consistency, ensured by freezing 24 different layers of water consecutively to leave a smooth surface, and by using pure, deionized water to lessen friction.

Indeed, there is a science to speed, and many athletes have done whatever they can to shave tenths and hundredths of seconds off their times. For instance, in the luge, where four runs still only separated the top three finishers by less than 35/100ths of a second, even the smallest technical tweak can win a medal.

US speed skaters, for their part, are wearing suits with special fabrics and small "wings" that expand when the skater hunches over, while slalom skiers are turning to shorter, shaped skis.

Yet, in these Games, the venues have taken more of a starring role. At Utah Olympic Park this weekend, American bobsled pilot Todd Hays will appear as a blurred bundle of kinetic energy, reaching speeds in excess of 80 m.p.h. as he rides perpendicular to the ground through sweeping turns. This is the fastest track in the world, and for those standing nearby, the experience is total - from the distant rumble of a sled's approach to the wisps of wind created at it passes by.

And that is what sets the Winter Games apart. For all the speed of track and field, no one worries about Marion Jones accidentally crashing to the ground. Cyclists are in no danger of flying off cliffs.

Watch out for bowling balls

The Winter Games, by contrast, are the Danger Games. Short-track speed skaters take out competitors like bowling balls when they fall. Mogul skiers chatter down mountain steeps while hanging on to the thinnest thread of control.

And then there's the downhill. This year's course, known as the Grizzly, is among the most difficult in the world, shooting skiers into hairpin turns at 85 m.p.h. and then spitting them out over 100-yard jumps. The goal, says designer Berhard Russi, was to create a course "where spectators are able to see what racers can do - the strength, the speed."

Mission accomplished. On Wednesday, it showcased one of the most remarkable feats of athleticism in these Games, when eventual silver medalist Bode Miller fell momentarily, then somehow recovered. "I was scared," Miller acknowledges. "I was heading right toward the coaches [and the edge of the mountain]."

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