The trickiest Olympic event: snow

The white stuff caused restarts and delays over the weekend and has tripped up superstars across the board.

There is nothing that ticks off athletes, spectators, and organizers at these Winter Olympic Games quite so much as ... snow.

Ironic, eh?

Impossible though it would be, of course, to hold the Games without the stuff, snowstorms over the last few days have shown that you can have too much of a good thing.

Competitors have struggled to cope with changing snow conditions that completely transformed the nature of their races. Organizers have battled through the night to clear downhill pistes of the unwanted white stuff. And fans have braved blizzards so severe they could scarcely see the slopes.

The weather in Turin, and in the mountains above the city where the outdoor events are being staged, has been changeable. At times it has been downright foul. That is hardly surprising in the Alps at this time of year, but it has underlined a key aspect of winter sports: Who wins the gold can depend on something as unpredictable as meteorological conditions.

There is no such thing as a level playing field in winter sports (except, naturally, in the rink events). Because the athletes do not compete against each other at the same time, changing weather conditions from one minute to the next sometimes decide who wins. A gust of wind can keep a ski jumper aloft for a critical second or so longer; a flurry of snow can slow down an alpine skier.

The weather's impact was dramatically clear during the men's Super G on Saturday, when a practically unknown Frenchman, Pierre Emmanuel Dalcin, seized the lead in an early run, and then watched disbelievingly as heavier and heavier snow blinded and slowed his more favored competitors one by one.

"You can't see anything. It was rough, dark," said US skier Steve Nyman as he finished, unable to match Mr. Dalcin's time.

Eventually the storm grew so bad that the judges interrupted the race after 17 of the 63 competitors had already gone, and restarted it from scratch in the afternoon, when the sun came out. Mr. Dalcin skied off-course, and most of the favorites did well.

In the meantime, teams of ski instructors had scraped and shoveled the fresh snow off the track, stripping it back to its prepared surface.

Unlike recreational skiers, who revel in the crunch and squeak of fresh snow under their skis, racers prefer icy conditions that give them greater speed and control.

At 80 m.p.h., they don't want to catch an edge in a tuft of snow that could send them cartwheeling down the slope. Fresh snow also means more friction, which makes for slower times.

Meanwhile, their skinny-ski compatriots at the cross country venues travel with as many as 20 different pairs of skis - flexible for soft snow, more rigid for harder conditions - and teams of wax technicians to help them cope with any sort of snow they might have to ski on.

There are specialists in glide wax and specialists in kick wax, the stuff that gives racers the grip to ski straight up hills in classical-technique races. The technicians choose their magic speed powders (applied in miniscule quantities - the stuff costs more than gold dust) according to the conditions on race day - hard and cold snow, soft and wet, soft and cold, and so on.

While preparations in the days before a race are a science, when "you are looking at a race start in half an hour or 45 minutes and the weather is still changing, it becomes an art," says Chris Hall, chief technician for the US nordic ski team. "Changing weather is the worst."

It is a truism of cross country skiing that the right wax cannot win you a race, but the wrong wax can lose it for you, as the Norwegians found when one of their stars, Frode Estil, came in a disastrous 17th in the 15 km race.

"My body was OK, but the skis were really bad," Mr. Estil complained after the finish. "I had the wrong wax on the skis. There was a little fresh snow on the tracks, which made things harder."

Falling snow can also interfere with sliding sports, such as bobsled: Even though maintenance men sweep the track between competitors, when it is falling as thickly as it was Sunday evening during the second round of the men's two man bobsled race, the amount of snow that can gather during a run can affect the times.

That kind of storm can also blur the driver's vision as he seeks the precise and perfect line down the track. But it did not bother the short-sighted pilot of the second US sled, Steven Holcomb, on Sunday.

"Well, I can't really see anyway. I'm pretty much blind as a bat," Mr. Holcomb said. "So it really doesn't affect me in any way. I just kind of drive down. It's actually more of an advantage for me, I think, because now everyone else has a hard time seeing."

Snow is less of a problem for ski jumpers: it was swirling winds that held up the jump portion of the Nordic combined event on Tuesday for 30 minutes, while the judges waited for calm. A gust from the side can upset a jumper's balance, losing him style points. A relatively gentle head wind of two meters a second, meanwhile, can give him a glider-like lift and an extra 10 to 15 meters on a jump.

Still, winter sports athletes do not expect the man-made tracks or neatly manicured fields that give their summer sports cousins equal chances all the time. The weather works in their favor as often as it works against them, they say, and they are used to it.

"It's tough, but we train in that kind of weather all the time," says Canadian skier Thomas Grandi. "You just have to be confident."

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