Commentary

Olympics' climate issues shift indoors

Updated: February 16, 2010, 12:28 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

RICHMOND, British Columbia -- The ice-men cameth, but the ice resurfacing machines didn't cooperate and the climate problems plaguing Olympic venues at the Vancouver Winter Games shifted indoors to the speedskating oval.

Half the sprinters in the men's 500-meter event, including all three eventual medalists, sat through a delay of more than an hour before their first race because of mechanical problems with the battery-powered Olympia resurfacing machines that organizers chose partly to fit in with the environmentally friendly theme of these Olympics.

The stoppage contributed to U.S. star Shani Davis' decision to pull out after the first race, where he logged the 18th-best time. But his press attaché, three-time Olympian Nathaniel Mills, said he might have done so anyway in order to prepare for the 1,000-meter race on Wednesday, when he will try to defend his 2006 gold medal.

"Above all, he wants to be fresh and ready for the 1,000," Mills said. "He just wanted to play it safe and not risk anything. ... I think all the coaches around him supported that decision. One of them didn't even want him to do one 500. If he'd been a medal contender, he would have pushed through."

Results in the 500 are determined by the combined time of the two races.

Davis spoke to reporters briefly before it was clear that he was withdrawing. "It's part of the game," he said of the conditions. "It happens. Bad ice is bad ice."

Tae-Bum Mo of South Korea won the event with a combined time of 69.82 seconds in the two races, followed by two Japanese skaters, Keiichiro Nagashima and Joji Kato. Nagashima, elated by his finish, exchanged a high-five with a coach that was so vigorous it knocked him off his skates.

But their triumphs were overshadowed by the holdup halfway through the first race, when a planned 15-minute resurfacing stretched to 45 minutes and then close to an hour and a half. Television shots and comments from coaches and officials caught on microphone indicated there were problems with distributing water evenly on the ice.

A related problem briefly delayed competition in the women's 3,000-meter event Sunday.

Venue and sport officials gathered in the infield inside the oval to consider options as the restive crowd hooted and booed. International Skating Union president Ottavio Cinquanta, clearly agitated at the time, later told reporters the ice had been adjudged to be safe for the athletes.

Meanwhile, venue manager and former Olympic speedskater Magnus Enfeldt said the cavalry -- in the form of the more familiar, propane-fueled Zamboni machine -- has been called in. Organizers have arranged for a Zamboni to be shipped overnight to Richmond from the Calgary Olympic Oval, widely thought to have the best ice in the world. Mark Messer, the "icemeister" of Calgary, is also responsible for ice making and conditioning here.

Enfeldt apologized to the athletes and spectators at a press conference. He said the Olympia machines have been used at the venue for the last year-and-a-half without incident. "We've just recently had problems with two of them," he said. The Olympias are also in use at the hockey and figure skating venues.

U.S. skater Nick Pearson called the spate of mechanical breakdowns "a world record." That may be the only mark that falls here. It's a challenge under the best of circumstances to make the ice here world-class; Vancouver lies at sea level and has a humid climate, as opposed to the higher and drier locations of faster ovals in Calgary and Salt Lake City.

NBC analyst Dan Jansen called the issues at the oval "embarrassing," and Mills said he'd never witnessed anything quite like this in his career.

"I've seen some horses pulling wet towels north of the Arctic circle break down, but I've never seen that," Mills said, adding tongue-in-cheek, "It's these indoor rinks, you know, they're so unpredictable."

Tucker Fredricks of Janesville, Wis., the top-ranked American in this event on the World Cup circuit, refused to blame the conditions or the delay for his 12th-place finish, but did say both his shins began to hurt the night before.

The ice "seemed normal, like it was the last two weeks we've been here," Fredricks said. "It was actually different every day, but it was consistent with being inconsistent.

"That really wasn't the issue today. Today just wasn't my day. Shin started to hurt last night. Guess it just wasn't meant to be."

Canada's Jeremy Wotherspoon, the 1998 silver medalist who still holds the world record in the event that he set in 2007, looked devastated after finishing ninth overall.

"I feel kind of emotional," he said. "It's my last Olympics. I tried to make the most of my last moment here. I didn't feel off today. I'm still trying to figure out what I could have done better."

It's actually not quite Wotherspoon's last moment before the home crowd. He, like Davis, will skate in the 1,000-meter event. But Fredricks thinks he knows how that one will come out.

"I think Shani will win," Fredricks said. "That's my prediction."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.