Could Vancouver wet weather woes have been anticipated?

By David Ljunggren

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Fog, record high temperatures, rain and wet snow affected so many events at the Vancouver Olympics that it begs the question of whether someone should have known trouble was likely.

Organizers were defiant as the competition wound down, saying they had been the victims of pure bad luck.

But one expert said the decision to hold the Games in the Pacific province of British Columbia had been a risk, given that the El Nino weather anomaly -- which causes temperatures to rise -- strikes once every four years or so.

"They're talking their chances and this year luck went against them," said William Hsieh, an atmospheric scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

"No one knows how big an El Nino will be. It peaks in January and February and can be small," he told Reuters.

This year it was big, and produced the warmest January on record. February temperatures were also higher than usual.

"We may have an El Nino every four years, but we've never had a January in a hundred years like the one we had. This is the kind of thing that happens, and we have to prepare for it," responded Games chief John Furlong.

Other Winter Games have had weather woes. Heavy snow hit the skiing both in Sarajevo in 1984 and in Nagano in 1988.

DAMP ATHLETES

Yet it was the sheer number of contests hit in Vancouver and Whistler that drew attention. Virtually every event held outdoors suffered at one stage or another.

In some sports, training sessions were canceled and races postponed or restarted. In others, damp athletes fought their way across soggy skiing courses, slid downhill through slushy snow and squinted through rain-streaked rifle sights.

Organizers had to fly and truck in snow to maintain some courses and were forced to cancel 28,000 tickets because rain and snow wrecked the standing areas.

Those running the Games point out that dummy runs of the competition schedule conducted in 2007, 2008 and 2009 during the actual dates of the Olympics went off without a hitch.

Those were non-El Nino years, remarked Hsieh, who said British Columbia's topography made accurate forecasting tough.

"The terrain changes too much. There is a big difference between the mountains and the valleys. The models can't resolve this," he said.

Whatever the underlying cause of Vancouver's weather woes, the International Olympic Committee says global warming is a factor that must henceforth be taken into account.

"In awarding the event to a host city, we must look at the climate and snow conditions and geography, as well as ways to alleviate any lack of snow," said president Jacques Rogge.

During a discussion with a small group of reporters, Rogge said he used to skate along Belgian canals as young man.

"That was then when the winters were still cold," he said.

(Additional reporting by Janet Guttsman and Karolos Grohmann in Vancouver)

(Editing by Jon Bramley)