While America's East Coast is digging out from record blizzards, Vancouver has the opposite problem: After its warmest January in 74 years, the Canadian city hosting the Olympic Winter Games has barely enough snow to hold many of the competitions. Here's THE WEEK's guide to the first snowless Games since 1964:
Are any events being postponed or canceled?
Not yet. The area's highest peak, the 7000-foot-high Whistler Mountain, has plenty of snow to support traditional ski contests. And although the 3,000-foot Cypress Mountain — site of the snowboarding and freestyle skiing/mogul events — has been largely barren, Canadian crews are working against the clock to coat its competition courses with imported snow. "There is no concern, and there is no Plan B," says International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
How do you create ski and snowboarding courses from scratch?
Twin-engine, heavy load helicopters have been unloading large heaps of snow on Cypress from Whistler and other nearby mountains every three minutes during daylight hours, while trucks ferry in additional flakes. Canadian crews have buried dry-ice-filled corrugated tubes beneath the mogul courses and snowboard halfpipe to keep the snow frozen from the inside out. (Also on hand: Salt and chemicals to help preserve the snow.) If necessary, crews will redistribute snow; for instance, once the moguls competition is over, organizers may cart some of that snow over to the freestyle aerials course.
Will the snow look fresh on TV?
On the surface. While the helicopters dumped dirty, rain-splattered snow to build up a base on Cypress, crews later added a top layer of clean, white "beauty snow." Authorities took a "calculated risk by opting to stage part of the Games on Cypress," says Greg Baum in Australia's The Age, "figuring on the view it commands across Vancouver and the spectacle it would make on television. It can only be hoped that they took out insurance."
How does the imported snow stack up?
It's getting mixed reviews. Some skiers say the trucked-in snow is a little "sticky" but impressive under the circumstances. Others are less impressed. "Everybody needs to adapt," says Canadian skier Alexandre Bilodeau, a 2009 World Cup champion. "It's obviously not the best course we've had this year, and it's not the type of skiing we're used to."
What else could go wrong?
Plenty. The forecast is calling for rain, which could wash the imported snow off the hay-stack structures organizers have used to build up the courses, or turn the snow to lethal ice. If fog sets in and limits the judges' visibility, ski events could be postponed. "If we can't see the start and the whole course, we can't move forward," explains Cypress Mountain race director Joe Fitzgerald.
How much will all this cost?
The costs of the emergency snow import have not been released. "God only knows what the bill for that will be," says Bill Mann in MarketWatch. Almost inevitably, it will push the games over its $2.65 billion budget (including security). Vancouver organizers insist the Games will pay for themselves, but even that wouldn't include the billions spent on upgrading roads, railway lines, and other infrastructure projects. "Enjoy the Games," Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer told his fellow Canadians. "You're paying more than enough for them."
Have other Winter Games been in similar fixes?
Yes. Vancouver is the warmest city ever to host the Winter Games, but it's not the first to face snow problems. For the 1964 Winter Games, the Austrian army had to haul 20,000 blocks of ice and 1.4 million cubic feet of snow to Innsbruck. And in 1988, in Calgary, Canada, many events had to be postponed due to heavy winds and "snirt," a mixture of hauled-in snow and blowing dirt.
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