Welcome to Sochi
On the third day of the Sochi snowboard and freeski test events, it rained. Again. The bottom of the future Olympic halfpipe turned to slush, throwing snowboarders to the ground who had made long treks to Russia just to ride it. And those former Olympians who dealt with this same scenario in 2010 shook their heads, all saying variations of the statement: It's just like Vancouver, all over again.
In the coming months, much will be written about the choice to locate the Winter Olympics on the Black Sea, in a place with virtually no pre-existing infrastructure and, according to Russian news service RT, will be the warmest city ever to host a Winter Olympics.
It has been reported that the cost of construction will exceed Russia's early $12 billion projection by more than $40 billion. The shock of this figure was magnified for journalists on the ground last week covering the Sochi test events by the actual sight of what that money is paying for. The area is an unending sprawl of unfinished roads, buildings, and entire event venues that aren't yet close to completion.
Roughly 26 miles into the mountains outside of the city of Sochi, in the area known as Krasnaya Polyana where the Olympic freestyle ski and snowboard courses are being built, recent rain and high temperatures have virtually stripped the venues down to the dirt. And there are good indicators that the same thing could happen again next year.
Next February, the snowboard and freeski jump- and rail-based discipline known as slopestyle will make its debut as one of the Winter Olympics' hottest new events. Snowboarding's biggest superstar, Shaun White, will likely be competing in both halfpipe and slopestyle in an attempt to add a matching set to his two existing Olympic Gold medals. NBC recently announced that -- despite the fact that snowboard slopestyle is scheduled to take place the day before the Opening Ceremonies -- it will broadcast the event live.
This means that slopestyle will, literally, kick off the 2014 Winter Games. And so this past week in Russia at the brand new Rosa Khutor resort that is (still) being constructed just for this Olympic occasion, there was supposed to be a slopestyle test event to go along with the halfpipe test event -- a dress rehearsal of sorts for next year's ski and snowboard competitions.
They were calling them World Cups -- actual International Ski Federation (FIS)-sanctioned contests for skiers and snowboarders with results that would count toward Olympic qualification points -- but really the events of the week were an excuse to bring athletes, course builders, and FIS and local Olympic Russian organizing committees together to look at this venue organizers have chosen for them and figure out how to pull off some world-class competitions on it.
The other side of Rosa Khutor
Though much has been made of the lack of snow in Krasnaya Polyana, the mountains actually have world-class big-mountain terrain that has been ski and snowboard movies for years. The only problem is that the snow level during warm years starts right above the ski and snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle venues.
But then the temperatures soared, rain turned snow to mud, and the ski and snowboard slopestyle competitions were cancelled because there simply wasn't enough snow to build a course with.
Enough snow was cobbled together to keep the halfpipe event alive, but up until the Freeski World Cup finals on Saturday -- the very runs of the last event on the last night of the test-event week -- high temperatures kept the pipe flat-bottom and walls in a steady state of sugary slush.
Because of this, there were some injuries.
"A lot of people got hurt, just by riding through the pipe," reported Torin Yater-Wallace after ski practice on Wednesday.
The quality of riding was also hindered during finals of the Snowboard World Cup event on Thursday night.
"I feel guilty because it was not the best that I could do and wanted to do," said 2010 Bronze medalist Scotty Lago, after placing third in the contest.
On Feb. 7, exactly one year to the date of next year's Games, temperatures reached 66 degrees in the city of Sochi and 59 degrees in the mountains of Krasnaya Polyana. Reports surfaced that Sochi organizing committee President and CEO Dmitry Chernyshenko was guaranteeing that despite how dire the situation looks here in 2013, in 2014, Sochi's snow-making system and other technologies will enable organizers to "cope with any challenges of the weather."
This was not actually new news. Reports that Sochi's organizing committee has been concerned about the weather have been circulating since record-high temperatures and rain wreaked havoc on snowboard halfpipe at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
The concern is valid. The chances of this unfortunate weather pattern repeating in Sochi, as it has been this past week, are actually quite high. A recent Russian study published in European Researcher entitled "Modern Climate Change and Mountain Skiing Tourism" that looks back at 50 years of weather data in Krasnaya Polyana shows that the region has an average February temperature of +1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 Fahrenheit).
That is to say, in February temperatures in the area where next year's Winter Olympic ski and snowboard venues are being built rarely get below freezing. This is an issue both for snow production (most snow making systems need temperatures to be below 27 degrees Fahrenheit to make decent snow) and for the construction of slopestyle jumps and halfpipe walls that require cold temperatures in order to set up and hold shape.
In August 2010 it was reported that Russia had decided that it would use cloud-seeding to control precipitation during the 2014 Olympics.
"We learned all the challenges that Vancouver faced and now we're in the process of creating a special program to mitigate any abnormal weather conditions," Chernyshenko said at the time.
The committee then unveiled the "Hot Snow" program in an official Sochi environmental report that September. "The plan is to collect snow over the course of the three years leading up to the Games and store it on the ice sheets of the mountains," Chernyshenko wrote.
"No one knew it was going to be this bad," said FIS Snowboard Assistant Race Director Roberto Moresi, when asked why more hadn't been done to keep the slopestyle test event from being cancelled. "We were hoping there would be a chance to pull it off, but then the weather pattern changed so radically."
But if this past week was supposed to be a trial run for all of next year's freestyle ski and snowboard events, and the Sochi team has had a plan in place to deal with this exact weather condition for three years, the question must be asked: Wouldn't this be the perfect time to demonstrate that plan's effectiveness? Chernyshenko's 2010 report mentions the use of "innovative technologies for the generation of snow at high temperatures." Surely this new technology needs a run through as well?
"An Olympic Game is a different dimension than a test event," Moresi explained. "At a test event you try to get as much done as possible, but it's not the same budget or situation."
The larger issue with the slopestyle test event being cancelled is that while the FIS has had four Olympics and 15 years to try to figure out how to build an elite-level halfpipe, it only added slopestyle to its World Cup lineup in 2010, and its competitions rarely get positive reviews from the riders.
At the FIS World Championships in La Molina, Spain in 2011 -- which was one of the events the IOC used to gauge whether or not slopestyle was ready for the Olympics -- a frustrated former X Games slopestyle medalist, Silvia Mittermuller, wrote on her website that, "if the people trying to take [slopestyle] somewhere aren't ready to build a good course [or] to judge in a understandable way ... maybe things aren't ready to be taken to the next level."
Two years later, at the 2013 FIS World Championships in Stoneham, Canada, things didn't appear to improve. Two-time X Games slopestyle gold medalist Mark McMorris complained publicly that "FIS is not where the riding is at, it's behind ... Every Olympic qualifier I've been at, the jumps have been really small."
To McMorris' complaint, Moresi explained that with most FIS course builds, "many times we have to start from zero. We're jumping from Vancouver to here to Korea ... and have to adapt to different areas with different infrastructures and snowmaking capabilities."[Events like the] X Games have had 15-something years building a course on the same slope. So you have had all the time to try, change, and readjust -- which is natural in building up an event to high standards," Moresi said.
That doesn't make FIS course builders bad. In fact, Moresi believes they are quite good. The situations are just different.
But with no trial run in Sochi this February, and no definitive timeline set for when a course will built before the Olympics next year, chances are high that Sochi will be much like other FIS contests in that the course builders won't have a lot of time to try, change and readjust the course to fit the riders' requirements.
For today's progressive slopestyle riding, athletes need big jumps in order to be able to throw and land their best tricks safely. Since they haven't seen a FIS slopestyle course that they've been able to ride at top level on yet, the fear is one won't be built in Sochi when the event steps onto the world stage in 2014.
Without a test event there is no way to know if those fears are justified or not -- just as, without a crystal ball of prognostication, there is no way to know if, even if a perfect course is constructed next year, Mother Nature won't try to melt it before the competition anyway.
"You think, 'Oh the Olympics! We're going to be in the best places, the best resorts, the best snow conditions, best whatever. And then you just come here and it's raining. And you say, 'how does that happen? It's the Olympic Games!' But that's life," Moresi said. "The course is going to limit them in any case, no matter what we do. It might limit them on a small scale, or a speed scale. ... The course is the course. In one way or the other they're going to have to deal with it and perform the best they can on it. That's what competitions are,"