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Olympic historian says weather woes always unofficial Winter Games event

VICTORIA, B.C. - Unofficially, it's the toughest hurdle facing athletes, organizers and spectators at every Winter Olympics.

VICTORIA, B.C. - Unofficially, it's the toughest hurdle facing athletes, organizers and spectators at every Winter Olympics.

There has not been one Winter Games that has not faced problems with the weather. It's been too warm, too cold, too snowy, and not snowy enough. Events have been delayed and even cancelled.

Vancouver appears to be joining a lengthy list of Games hosts forced to confront - and accept - the contrarian character of Mother Nature, says an Olympic historian.

Warm weather and rains have washed away much of the snow on Vancouver's Cypress Mountain, scheduled site of freestyle skiing and snowboarding events.

With temperatures hovering around 4C, it's too warm even to make snow and plans are now in the works to truck and fly in snow.

It's not the first time.

Historian David Wallechinsky said at the 1964 Games in Innsbruck, the Austrian military was called in to carry in tonnes of snow to save the ski courses from warm winds and rain.

"There was a very bad lack of snow, so the organizing committee reached out to the Austrian government and the Austrian army came in and carved out 20,000 ice bricks and transported them to the bobsled and luge runs, and they also carried 40,000 cubic metres of snow to where the alpine skiing was supposed to happen," he said.

Then, as fate would have it, 10 days before the opening ceremonies, it rained, turning much of the runs to slush, said Wallechinsky, co-author of The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics, The Vancouver Edition.

"The army moved in and actually hand-packed the snow onto the slopes by hand and foot," he said in a telephone interview from Santa Monica, Calif., where it was raining heavily Thursday.

Wallechinsky said the Austrians considered the Games a matter of national pride and supported the use of the military to save the ski slopes. In those days, making snow was not an option.

The 1988 Calgary Olympics were the first to use artificial snow.

Warm weather has confounded most other Winter Olympics, except perhaps the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan, where too much snow was a problem and the 1994 Games in Lillehammer, Norway, where snow conditions were excellent for athletes but the temperatures were frigid for spectators, Wallechinsky said.

"The opening ceremony (at Lillehammer), I thought I was going to die out there, and then the Norwegian woman next to me turned to me and said, 'Boy, it's really cold isn't it,"' he said.

Wallechinsky, 61, has attended five previous Winter Games, Albertville in 1992, Lillehammer in 1994, Nagano in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin in 2006.

The author of a whole series of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics," about various Games, said he will be in Vancouver next month.

Wallechinsky said the 1928 Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, are actually known for the bad weather they endured. The opening ceremonies were held in a blizzard, but shortly afterwards, warm weather arrived and never left.

The final of the 10,000-metre speedskating race was cancelled because the outdoor rink turned to water, but the 50-kilometre cross-country ski race went ahead even though the race-day temperature was 25C - a balmy summer day in many Canadian cities.

Wallechinsky said Vancouver, like every other Games host, must find ways to adapt to weather conditions.

Vancouver organizers have been monitoring weather conditions in and around venues for five years in order to create contingency plans to ensure the Games can go on, in any weather conditions.

"The weather is continuously variable," said Chris Doyle, a meteorologist with Environment Canada and the manager of weather services for the 2010 organizing committee.

"Our job is to keep the people at the venues and the organizing committee abreast on current situations and with some expectation of what the weather is going to do in the next five to seven days so they can adjust their plans accordingly if required by that forecast."

Doyle said the weather is supposed to cool down over the weekend and there may be some snow on Monday, but then warmer temperatures will return.

With no snow - or weather cold enough to make snow - in the immediate forecast, organizers are now falling back on their contingency plans.

They plan to build the base for the freestyle skiing and snowboarding courses at Cypress Mountain from straw and wood, and then truck or fly in snow from other parts of the mountain to cover it.

They said the Games will go on.

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