Answer Man: Perfect ice a slippery slope at the Olympics

News-DemocratMarch 17, 2014 

I have a question about the recent Olympics. I love the figure skating, but wonder how often they smooth the ice like they do between periods at a hockey game. I know the show was edited, so did they smooth it after every skater and we simply didn't see it? Or do they do it after every few skaters? Or not at all? If that's the case, it seems to me the first skaters would have an advantage because they wouldn't run into the ruts left by previous skaters, which seems dangerous. -- L.T., of Belleville

I don't know about you, but I rarely give ice a second thought. Whether it be crushed, shaved or cubed, as long as it keeps my soda cold, it's just fine.

Good thing I didn't work at the Sochi Olympics. There, it took a slick team of technicians to both maintain and tweak ice surfaces for four very different sports -- hockey, curling, figure skating and speed skating.

The work was particularly difficult at the Iceberg Skating Palace, the site of both the figure skating and the speed skating events.

The problem is that the two sports have different preferences. The jumps and spins of figure skating are best done on a 25-degree surface while speed skaters zoom around fastest at 20 degrees.

That may not sound like much, but it took at least two hours to lower the surface temperature 5 degrees. And since ice makers tend to cater to the more popular figure skating, speed skaters sometimes were heard grumbling because they had to practice on slower ice.

As for the figure skating itself, the ice was smoothed after every two groups of skaters, Selina Vanier told me by e-mail. She's the communications coordinator for the International Skating Union in Lausanne, Switzerland, which has overseen competitive ice skating since 1892.

In Olympic competition, a group generally consists of four pairs, five dance teams or six single skaters. So in singles competition, they would smooth the ice after every 12 skaters, but don't worry -- that 12th skater does not face any appreciable added peril.

"There is no particular advantage for any skater because those skates glide easily over ruts," Vanier assured me. "The real priority is to make sure that there is nothing on the ice (thrown flowers, etc.) during the programs."

Besides, resurfacing the ice too often would "heat" the surface to temperatures above the desired 25-degree level. This would be a disadvantage until the refrigeration cooled the ice again.

Adding to the technicians' headaches were the relatively warm and humid winter conditions around Sochi, which is on the Black Sea coast. When the rinks were first used last fall, hockey players complained the ice was too soft and that they had to wear duller skates so they did not dig into the surface as much.

So for several weeks, workers had to play around with the refrigeration units, air conditioning and the settings on the resurfacing machines.

For example, after the second period of games, they made the blades of the resurfacers dig a little deeper to get at the colder stuff underneath. Olympic teams responded with more favorable reviews, although they had to remember to keep hitting extra-hard passes, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.

Then, there is perhaps the most laborious surface for curling. First, they lowered the floor temperature to 21 degrees before adding several layers of slightly acidic water along with the painted markings.

Finally came the trickiest part of all: putting down the textured surface known as "pebble" to control the speed and direction of the stones, which can weigh between 38 and 44 pounds.

Using water tanks strapped to their backs and waving something resembling a shower head, workers carefully spread an even layer of droplets that froze on contact when they hit the surface. A scraping machine then sliced the tops off these tiny ice bumps.

"Oh, there's lots of pressure," ice specialist Hans Wuthrich told the Times. "People have no idea what we go through. You can go to school to learn this, but that doesn't mean you are going to be good at it. You need to have the knack."

Today's trivia

What did Lyndon Johnson often give as a gift so people thought of him first thing in the morning?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Now 90, Earl Hamner Jr. is best remembered for writing the novel on which the 1963 movie "Spencer's Mountain" is based and the subsequent TV series "The Waltons." But he reportedly first earned a name for himself in Hollywood by writing the Jan. 26, 1962, episode of "The Twilight Zone" entitled "The Hunt" about a backwoods possum hunter who gets a little more than he bargained for on one of his hunts. Hamner would go on to write seven more episodes including one of my favorites, "Stopover in a Quiet Town" starring Barry Morse -- and the show's very last episode, "The Bewitchin' Pool" on June 19, 1964.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

Belleville News-Democrat is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service