When snowboarders competing in the first FIS World Cup held in the future 2014 Olympic snowboarding venue arrived in Russia on Sunday, they came with questions. All of the freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in next year's Winter Games were scheduled to have test events this week -- trial runs to work out the kinks.
Slopestyle, which will make its Olympic debut next February, was slated to go first, with a World Cup.
A week out, the slopestyle events were canceled. "Due to lack of snow and continuous warm and rainy weather conditions ..." the media release read. The halfpipe World Cups, however, were to proceed as planned. How would it go down, the snowboarders scheduled to compete first wondered, if it was too warm at the venue to hold snow?
On Monday, the first practice session was held. In Krasnaya Polyana, the mountainous region outside of Sochi where the Olympic ski and snowboard events are to be held, electronic signs posted temperatures ranging from 8 to 12 degrees Celsius (46 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit).
When asked for a description of the pipe's conditions, 2002 Olympic snowboarding bronze medalist J.J. Thomas, who now serves as Louie Vito's coach, replied: "Bumpy, steep, with potential."
"When do you think we'll be able to start trying tricks?" Elena Hight asked Gretchen Bleiler.
"The pipe will get better," Bleiler answered. "It always starts out like this and gets better as the week goes on."
On Tuesday, it rained. The bottom of the pipe turned to slush, making it difficult for riders to hold their lines. Matt Ladley separated his shoulder in the flats and retired for the week with his arm in a sling.
Though all FIS World Cup events count toward Olympic qualification points, many of halfpipe snowboarding's top-tier riders came to get a first glance at the venue they might be competing in, come next February. After the practice session, in the hotel cafeteria where the athletes gathered to eat dinner, comparisons between this pipe and the Vancouver Olympic halfpipe -- which fell apart when subjected to prolonged periods of high temperatures and steady rain -- began to be made.
"The 2010 Olympic halfpipe was maybe the worst pipe anybody had ridden in a long time," said U.S. Snowboard coach Rick Bower. "This one is pretty bad. I really think it's the conditions. They did the best they could have done with what they had to work with, but when it's 50-plus degrees out, there's not much you can do with the snow."
On Wednesday, the temperature dropped slightly for the FIS World Cup qualifying rounds but did not get anywhere close to below freezing. Thursday's semifinals were held early in the morning, and the finals ran after the sun went down. Never did it get cold enough for the pipe's walls and flat bottom to harden.
The problem, explained by competitor Spencer Shaw, is this: "If the pipe is soft, it tends to fall apart. The more people you have riding it creates a kink in the wall, which is challenging to deal with."
Midway through Thursday night's final, it became apparent that there was a problem. Almost all the riders started to fall on their third hit in the pipe. On his first run, local hero Iouri Podladtchikov, who was born in Moscow and spent much of the week being shyly approached by adoring Russian fans, threw down a series of trick combinations that were nowhere near the level he is capable of when he is at his best. He visibly pulled back from pulling a double at the bottom of his run and netted enough points to maintain a second-place standing, which he kept all the way to the podium -- finishing just behind Japan's Taku Hiraoka, who came in first.
"I feel guilty because it was not the best that I could do and wanted to do. It was kind of a safety run," said 2010 Olympic bronze medalist Scotty Lago, who finished the night in third place. "It feels great to ride the Olympic pipe, and a visual on the pipe is real helpful. It's super bright with the lights too. They do have a little work to do with the halfpipe; it's pretty soft here. But all in all, a successful event, and I am happy to have ended up on the podium."
"You can look at the finals and the number of runs that were landed, and that can tell you about the condition of the pipe," said Bower. "People weren't cracking under pressure. The pipe was just that bad."
It is a testament to Kelly Clark's skill that she manages to get as high as she does out of the pipe, even in adverse conditions. The two-time Olympic medalist and 10-time X Games medalist in Women's Snowboard SuperPipe came in first, ahead of Australian Holly Crawford and France's Sophie Rodriguez, who rounded out the women's podium in second and third.
"It was challenging this week due to the warm weather, but the event organizers ... did their best to maintain the conditions," said Clark. "I'm pleased with how the event went tonight for me and, realistically, moving forward this could be a similar situation next year."
No one knows what kind of weather Mother Nature will bring next winter, but if next February's conditions are anything like this one's, there may be something to worry about.
"Next year a lot depends on the weather and conditions," said Clark. "Getting the right people cutting the pipe and maintaining it will set us up for success."
FIS World Cup Snowboard Halfpipe, Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14, 2013: Women's Results
FIS World Cup Snowboard Halfpipe, Sochi, Russia, Feb. 14, 2013: Men's Results
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