US, other sliders upset with Sochi ice conditions

Bobsled and skeleton athletes from the U.S and other nations are
upset over ice conditions at the track that will be used for Sochi
Olympics, saying it’s impairing their ability to get ready for this
weekend’s World Cup finale and prepare for the 2014 Games.

The issue is not about speed, safety or design – everyone’s
satisfied with those elements – but rather, how the ice is being
maintained. In simplest terms, many sliders are alleging that when
they have access to the track, the ice is not being tended to
properly and that has led to some bumpy rides down the chute.

Some U.S. sliders have been in Russia for more than a week, with
only 10 trips down the track to show for that time. Sliders have
said that international ice time has been canceled twice this week
already, but that the Russian teams have been permitted to train as
scheduled, which many are calling a display of pre-Olympics
gamesmanship.

”It’s so bumpy out there,” U.S. skeleton athlete Noelle
Pikus-Pace said in a telephone interview from Rzhanaya Polyana,
Russia, where the track was built about an hour northeast of Sochi,
the Olympic hub. ”There’s actual concrete in the outrun. It just
isn’t ready for us to slide. The track is a mess.”

It’s not just the Americans who are upset. Olympic skeleton
silver medalist and newly crowned world champion Shelley Rudman of
Britain said ”poor ice maintenance” led to two days of canceled
workouts, and Canadian slider Eric Neilson turned to Twitter to
express his frustration.

”This trip here has turned into a joke really,” Neilson wrote.
”Where are the hidden cameras?”

Bobsled and skeleton’s governing body, the FIBT, has no plans to
cancel this weekend’s World Cup event, though many sliders have
asked in recent days if it’s even a smart move to consider
competing. Some have complained of blurred vision during runs from
bouncing around on choppy ice, and others have experienced
headaches after going down the track.

”It’s pretty frustrating coming to the track every day with a
track crew that does not know what they’re doing,” U.S. skeleton
athlete John Daly said. ”No work is being done on the track.
There’s delays in every session.”

Pierre Lueders, the longtime Canadian bobsled driver who now
coaches the Russian team, did not return an email seeking
comment.

The home team gets a home-ice advantage in every Olympics. At
the track in Whistler, British Columbia for the 2010 Olympics,
Canadian sliders – as was their right – got dozens more practice
runs down the world’s most treacherous course than any
international competitors did. And when the U.S. has hosted
bobsled, skeleton and luge world championship races in recent
years, Americans have enjoyed quite a medal haul as well.

The better a slider knows a course, the faster they get down the
course. It’s simple.

What’s further irking the international sliders in this case was
the scene that played out earlier during this training week, when
foreign teams were not allowed to train because of the poor ice
conditions – but that those problems were fixed in time for the
Russians to get their daily practice sessions in that night, and
allegedly without any international eyes allowed to watch those
proceedings.

”The longer it goes, the more you wonder what’s going on,”
USBSF CEO Darrin Steele said. ”At this stage in the game, it’s
hard to understand why they wouldn’t have a good handle on the
track maintenance and why the conditions aren’t good. This is
official training for this World Cup and we typically don’t see
these types of problems.”

Steele said his coaches are ”very frustrated with where things
are.” Another frustration source for non-Russian teams is that
next season’s pre-Olympic training week at the Sanki Sliding Center
is scheduled to end about a week before the start of the World Cup
season in North America, which could lead to some logistical
issues.

The Russians will not be part of that training week. They’re
planning to train on tracks in North America that week, though
Steele said U.S. and Canadian officials are considering not opening
up their facilities to the Russians because of the problems they’re
experiencing now.

U.S. skeleton coach Tuffy Latour said the venue itself is
gorgeous, and is among those raving about its unique design. But
the ice condition, he said, takes away from everything.

”There isn’t a track crew to be seen and the organizers haven’t
asked for outside help,” Latour said. ”We have a world of
knowledge at the other international tracks waiting to be called
on. It’s frustrating to be here with great weather, a fantastic
looking facility and athletes that are eager to slide, yet we sit
in our hotel rooms and wait.”