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Mild Weather May Prove Difficult for Bobsled Tracks in Sochi

With the competition only days away for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, bobsledding teams from around the world are preparing to battle for the Olympic gold. The weather for the Games will prove to be no problem for the bobsledding athletes, but it could challenge track maintenance crews.

With a majority of the bobsledding tracks located in North America, most teams outside these areas relocate to give themselves a chance to practice on the tracks.

For the famous Jamaican bobsledding team, who qualified for two-man bobsleigh competition in this year's Winter Games, Wyoming is their home away from home.

"They moved to the States and found a home in Wyoming," Manager of the Olympic Sports Complex and Olympic Jumping Complex Tony Carlino said.

Depending upon what races are ahead, the Jamaican team trains in either Calgary, Canada, Park City, Utah, or Lake Placid, N.Y., alongside other countries' bobsledding teams, including the U.S. team.

Due to the nature of the sport, most of its athletes come from backgrounds in track and field or football, as the training techniques are similar. In order to properly prepare for competition, bobsled teams go through a vigorous training sessions, even during the summer months.

"In the summertime, they are trained on push tracks with bobsleds on wheels and taught how to push on dry land. Then that is translated to the winter with the ice track and sliding," Carlino said.

During winter competition, athletes sprint approximately 50 meters, creating momentum, then jump into the bobsleigh and barrel down the tracks. At least two people are required for the sport, as someone is necessary for the front and another is required for braking purposes in the back.

In order to qualify for the Olympic Games, bobsleigh teams must finish in the top 30 in the FIBT race series, which is made up of three different competition series.

As cold weather is imperative for the sport, athletes from around the world are used to low temperatures. However, Sochi's subtropical climate could prove to challenge track maintenance crews, as temperatures are expected to rise near the end of the Games.

"There could be a couple good snow events for the Alpine venues during the week of the 10th, but it looks to turn mild for the last week of the Games," said AccuWeather World Weather Expert Jason Nicholls.

While temperatures as high as 45 F will not necessarily hurt the consistency of the track itself, it will generate more work for the track maintenance staff, according to Carlino.

Bobsleigh tracks are originally built by computer design and then constructed with pipes, concrete and, the most important ingredient, ammonia.

Ammonia is pushed through the pipes underneath the concrete and used to control the temperature of the track, keeping it frozen at all times. The temperature at which ammonia is released into the pipes is vital to preserving the track, as mistakes can melt the track or lead to frost on top of the ice, thus creating ruts and bumps.

"It's a very involved process, if you make a mistake in the temperature that you send the ammonia out at, it takes six to eight hours to adjust it, which is sometimes too late," Carlino said.

To create the actual ice atop the concrete track, water is sprayed on the concrete until a sheet of ice, approximately two inches deep is built. In order to ensure a level track, the ice is then smoothed by hand with a roller chisel. After each time the track is used, maintenance crews spray more water onto the ice and patch problem spots with slush.

During competition, maintenance crews must line the track and pay special attention to the curves. It is imperative that no concrete peeps out of the ice, as this can endanger the athletes.

"If it's an important race, you have to maintain every curve," Carlino said. "When sleds go down, you can see where bumps need to be taken out or where more ice is needed."

Toward the end of the Olympics, maintenance crews could face issues with frost atop the tracks, as the air warms.

"That's when they have to be ready to adjust their ice temperatures and the way they work the track," Carlino said.