Heavy fog forces Olympic postponements
Krasnaya Polyana, Russia (SportsNetwork.com) - Norwegian biathlete Ole Einar Bjoerndalen was leading the men's 10-kilometer sprint at the 1998 Nagano Olympics when the race was canceled because of heavy snow and fog.
According to the International Biathlon Union, that was the last time one of its Olympic events needed to be rescheduled until the men's mass start was postponed this past Sunday because of fog.
It was 16 years and three full Winter Olympics between those postponements.
It took just one more day for it to happen again.
The 15-kilometer race was one of two events that had to be canceled on Monday as another layer of thick fog blanketed the mountains outside Sochi.
The reality of unseasonably mild conditions at the so-called Spring Olympics gave way to uncertainty as organizers scrambled to also reschedule the men's snowboard cross, which had its first round lopped off.
The cancellations might have been an inconvenience for athletes and fans, but organizers ran into a bit of luck in being able to reschedule the competitions for Tuesday, an open day on the slate for both biathlon and snowboarding.
In canceling the men's race Sunday, the IBU said matters were not only bad for spectators in the stadium, but also on the Laura course, where the dense fog made for dangerous track conditions.
That's doubly true for riders in snowboard cross, who compete on a winding course filled with obstacles and steep turns. The sport has seen its share of scary accidents, including Sunday, when American Jackie Hernandez slammed her head in a crash and suffered a concussion.
Conditions were clear when Hernandez fell, proving you don't need fog for the sport to be dangerous.
"This fog, it's super dense up there," U.S. rider Nate Holland said on Monday, according to the Los Angeles Times. "It's the Olympics, we want to have the best riders win and not having anything screwy."
Added Holland: "You think what you're going to do off these features and you can't see anything. You'd have to ride by braille."
Until Monday, weather stories out of Sochi had been about how warm it was, with temperatures even rising into the 60s. Cross country skiers cut the sleeves off their competition uniforms for a race. One skier from Norway cut his pants above the knees, turning them into shorts.
The mild temperatures, though pleasant for visitors, wreaked havoc on volatile courses for the snow events. Slushy conditions on the snowboard halfpipe led to complaints from riders that it was dangerous.
On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Sochi organizers hadn't purchased enough of the right kind of salt -- yes, salt -- to keep some competition surfaces properly iced.
Salt, particularly the long-grain variety, melts snow so that it may turn into ice when temperatures drop overnight. Icy conditions are preferable in some sports to keep speeds up and make navigation easier.
The newspaper detailed a clandestine operation to have 24 tons of salt shipped by plane from a company based in Switzerland to the mountain venues outside the Olympic host city.
Russia spent a record $51 billion on the Sochi Olympics but the cost of its Hail Mary salt order was only around $3,500.
"It could have ended in disaster," Hans Piersen, a former Swiss Olympic skier- turned salt expert, told the Times. "But it was good teamwork."
It's just Bjoerndalen's luck, or lack thereof, that he is also competing in the first Olympic biathlon race to be rescheduled since Nagano. The fog not only postponed his latest race, it may have delayed a bit of Olympic history.
Bjoerndalen is chasing the all-time Winter Olympics medal record. He won the men's 10-kilometer sprint on Feb. 8 for his 12th medal to tie him with retired Norwegian cross country skier Bjorn Daehlie for the most all-time among Winter Olympians. Daehlie won 12 medals between 1992-98 -- including eight golds, one more than Bjoerndalen.
Bjoerndalen, 40, should win a medal with Norway in the men's biathlon relay on Saturday and could also medal if he races in the mixed relay on Wednesday, so speculation about him breaking the record might well be a formality.