on brand new venues.

top venue

Yesterday we checked out the biathlon and ski venues for the first time. We wanted to sort out the logistics before race day, and I’m glad we did. To get to the Laura endurance sports center, we need to take the gondola down from our hotel to Gorki City, then walk the ten minutes to the Gorki Media Center, go through security there, get on a bus up to the Laura base station, get on another, bigger gondola to the main station at the top, and finally take a van ride to one of the two venues themselves. The whole thing takes between an hour and an hour and a half – each way! It’s good to know that we need to build this time into our schedules.

(Additionally, here’s an amazing security story: we were waiting for the bus, and when it arrived it had a sticker sealing the door shut. We kind of laughed that once the bus driver was in there, they sealed him in. But it’s not a joke. A security officer inspected then broke the seal. As we boarded the bus, they scanned each of our credentials – then as I looked out the window I saw them put a fresh sticker over the door. When we arrived at the Laura base station, another security officer inspected and broke the seal, and then they scanned each of us off. It’s not like this on every bus ride, which is a little strange – but it does make you feel like they sure are keeping track of where everyone is, at least for bus TM18….)

Anyway, the biathlon venue is amazing. We were awestruck. The views of the mountains! The sheer size of the thing! Alex had never been to a World Cup biathlon race and Nat only to the ones in Fort Kent in 2011, so they were perhaps even more amazed. Even your standard World Cup biathlon venue is pretty darn impressive. But this was a whole new animal in terms of scale, and I was pretty amazed too. It helped that it was a bright, bright sunny day and everything was gleaming and sparkling. Here’s Nat’s reaction, and some more shots:

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We did a quick interview with Canada’s Rosanna Crawford and chatted with her coach, Matthias Ahrens, too. More on that later. We checked out the press room – palatial! – and then walked over to the cross country venue. It’s a five-minute walk and we also caught a ride on an awesome snowmobile coach.

By comparison, the cross country stadium is pretty tame. If I hadn’t seen the biathlon stadium first, I would have thought it was beautiful. But it lacks a lot of the grandeur that we had just seen – it looked more like any old World Cup venue.

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Biathlon is, after all, a signature Russian sport. It’s not surprising that the Sochi organizers really put their best into this particular venue. As I’ve written on FasterSkier before, for a long time the biathlon relay was considered the most important winter Olympic event for the Russians to get a gold medal in. Even today, even globally, cross country skiing is not as popular to watch and is definitely not as big of a television phenomenon. Hence the smaller, less grandiose stadium.

Another amazing thing about the venues is that just a few years ago, they didn’t exist at all. You can sort of tell: they are draped on top of this amazing mountain. It’s not exactly a logical or easy place to build cross country ski trails. The terrain is pretty intense – big downhills where the U.S. women clocked themselves hitting 45 miles per hour, a speed I never wish to attain on cross country skis; grinding uphills that last a long, painful time. The whole thing is at 6,000 feet.

That makes for good panorama views of the Caucasus and amazing spectating.

But we chatted a little bit with the USOC’s Luke Bodensteiner yesterday, a former Olympic skier himself who has been doing site visits here since 2008 in preparation for the Games. He said that the first time he visited, there were no cross country ski trails. There was a stadium, but it was kind of on an awkward slant and didn’t have any of those characteristics we require for a high-performance venue: flat stadium, straight lines, etc.

Famed course designer Hermod Bjørkestol designed the courses, looking at GIS maps and imagery and using site visits to try to finagle the best way to cross country ski on the side of an exceptionally steep mountain. The results are beautiful courses that are very difficult. After all, that side of a steep mountain thing. Nevertheless, Luke reported that some of the looks ski very well, flowing with the uphills and downhills such that skiers can carry a lot of momentum. He said they were fun. That’s pretty much the best praise you can get for a race course. The Laura area has been completely transformed since Luke came here the first time. It’s unrecognizable.

But it’s a little crazy to build courses here. First of all, they are so difficult that it’s hard to picture people coming here to ski when they are on vacation. The downhills are a bit scary even for the best skiers in the world. The uphills, especially at altitude, are tough even for expert athletes. Your recreational joe schmoe probably wouldn’t have much fun here, and someone trying to learn to ski for the first time? Forget about it. So what are these venues going to be used for?

“Come back in five years, and tell me what’s here,” Nat said as we rode the gondola down. “I bet nothing.”

It’s also interesting that the biathlon venue was designed a little differently than any other I’ve seen (it’s not like I’ve seen them all, but still). Alex remarked on how far away the stadium seemed to be from the shooting range, and I agree, it seems a little more removed than most venues. I chalked it up to the fact that most venues have been in use for years, sometimes even decades, so they are from a time when biathlon was a more intimate sport. In Sochi, building from scratch, there was plenty of room to make a huge, expansive stadium. But I think it will be harder here for spectators to really see what’s happening on the range, which is the whole point of watching biathlon from a stadium in the first place. It’s exciting! It will be interesting to see if this extra space diffuses the usual biathlon atmosphere at all.

All the seats will be full today, but here’s Alex checking out a funny ground-level seat in the now-empty stadium – seriously, you wouldn’t be able to see anything, not even over the fence!

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Then there’s the range itself. As we discussed with Rosanna and Matthias (article here), it is carved into a hill. Now, I’ve seen ranges build into hills before – it’s kind of a common strategy, so that any stray shots go into a hillside instead of flying out into the distance. But this is different. There is a huge retaining wall, many stories high, which rises behind the range. (Athletes have to leave the range and then climb a long sweeping turn to ski up along the top of this wall as they leave the range and head out on their loops – it is a monster climb and one of the hardest on the course.) The retaining walls also extend along the sides of the range, with the effect that the range is protected from the wind on three sides. That makes it an exceptionally calm and “easy” shooting experience.

I am sure we will see plenty of high-pressure mistakes, but in my mind, blocking the wind on the range kind of defeats the point of biathlon! And as I discussed with Matthias, some athletes have a special ability to read and adjust to the wind. Famously, earlier this year when a World Cup race was canceled midway through in Ostersund, Sweden, due to gale-force winds that were knocking down trees, Norway’s Ann Kristin Flatland – swaying in the wind herself as she stood on her shooting mat – somehow managed to muscle her way through hitting her targets. It was one of the most amazing feats of shooting that I have ever seen. Megan Imrie of Canada is also an expert at reading changes in the wind. Biathletes who rely on this ability to get onto the podium are at a distinct disadvantage here in Sochi, since wind won’t come into play so much. That doesn’t seem fair. Everywhere else, this is an established and important part of the sport.

Amusingly, Rosanna also discussed how the shots also sound different because of the echo created by those huge retaining walls. She called missed targets “more heartbreaking” because they make a big “thunk” sound.

(There have also been some issues with the Organizing Committee laying out the courses wrong. At one point they put the starting line in the wrong place. Max Cobb is the technical delegate at the Games biathlon races and in charge of ironing out these problems when people notice and complain. Poor Max.)

The venues were also built in a pretty ecologically special area. After all, it is the summit of a mountain in a protected mountain range. We cracked up (but also cried inside) when we saw these signs on the cross country course:

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Umm, what does that even mean? Spectators aren’t supposed to… walk their? Drop their trash? Sorry, you already built the stadium and the trails here. Putting up a sign isn’t going to fix the fact that you ruined this area. In fact, it’s almost a sort of embarrassing advertisement: look! An environmentally sensitive area! Let’s show off how we wrecked it!

Anyway.

The biathlon and ski venues were beautiful. I think they will be excellent for the competition, something that hasn’t always been true in the past for these sports (people complained about the trails in Vancouver, for instance). In that sense, I really salute the organizers for getting it right. Who can argue with this?

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But it just brought up a lot of interesting issues that people have been mumbling about in the run-up to the Games. The venues were built so specifically for the Olympics – none of them existed before. That doesn’t seem like the best way to organize an Olympics. Can’t we use existing venues, instead of making a mess somewhere and then, as is true here and at the endurance venues from Vancouver, likely never returning again?

I was reminded of this again at the Opening Ceremonies. The Fisht stadium is being used pretty much just for the ceremony. Supposedly it will turn into a training and competition venue for the Russian soccer team, but Sochi is a pretty far-flung place and the city itself is quite small. I can’t really picture it getting a lot of use – it’s not like the national team is going to move its base to Sochi, no way! The design of the stadium, too, seemed specifically suited to the ceremony choreography. The huge set pieces were pulled across the stadium on cables, through the middle. So the stadium had roofs on two halves, and then a weird different section running through the middle like a racing stripe. This was where all the cables and machinery was to move these set pieces. I wondered if the stadium came first and then the ceremony, but I suspect that they were designed hand in hand. Who makes a $779 million stadium just to match your opening ceremony design? Russia, that’s who.

It’s just a shame to imagine so much money spent, land wrecked, and work put into something that will never get used to this extent again. Even if it’s a great Games, which I have a feeling this will be, we have to ask whether it’s worth it. That gets into questions of the IOC and the Olympic bidding process, which as I mentioned I will expound upon sometime soon.

Even as the Games begin, there is last-minute building and touch-up at the stadiums. We saw a guy in a climbing harness washing all the windows on the biathlon stadium building (it’s a lot of windows). I’ll leave you with a few pictures of behind-the-scenes at the ski venue, which I snapped as we waited for a shuttle down to the gondola. It’s from an area restricted to press, volunteers, and teams, so spectators will never see it. There’s a certain amount of this at any World Cup, as each race definitely needs a staging area. Here’s what it looks like in Sochi.

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Okay, now I’m heading off to the first races of the Olympics! I’m so excited for everything to get started! At World Cups sometimes I get this overwhelming rush of adrenaline as I watch. I guess that’s why we watch sports – but sometimes it’s so exciting, I’m so nervous to see what happens when an athlete I know or like is in the lead, I swear it’s more of a rush than I almost ever got when I was racing myself. I expect the Olympics might be like this several times a day for two weeks. It’s going to be incredible and it all starts NOW!

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