KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Almost no one is happy with the halfpipe, that's for sure, not least of all the athletes who have to hurl their bodies down it.
Who or what is to blame for an Olympic venue falling so far short of expectations less than 24 hours before Shaun White and his competitors ride the pipe for medals today, well, that depends who you ask.
With snowboarders voicing strong criticism about the condition of the halfpipe at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, pipe builder John Melville blamed the weather and time restrictions put on him by the Olympic Broadcasting Service.
OBS, meanwhile, said it was unaware of any such restrictions. And the International Olympic Committee said earlier Monday that it was the responsibility of the International Ski Federation (FIS), which manages the competition.
What became clear by Monday night, though, was that while much work had been done to address concerns that have been raised for days, the riders set to compete this week are still worried about the conditions they face in the biggest competition of their careers.
American Hannah Teter, a two-time Olympic medalist, said she's been unable to practice new tricks here because training has not been good.
"It is a little dangerous," Teter said. "I saw more people fall today than I have all season. It's just dangerous because it's crappy, you know?"
Added two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White: "I'm hoping they can do whatever they can to make it a better pipe.
"It's hard to get here and see this and feel the pressure. Not so much myself, I won't name who it was, but there was a girl in front of me very distraught to be all the way here to Russia with the Olympics and really having a hard time with this pipe. But I'm hoping for the best."
Since the riders first got in the pipe for practice on Saturday, the complaints have been constant. Initially, they said the vertical grade of the walls was off. Once that was fixed, the flat bottom of the pipe was compared to a moguls course.
Several factors have contributed to the conditions, said John Melville, founder and CEO of New Zealand-based Development Snowparks, which built the pipe.
To be sure, one is the weather. Temperatures on the mountain topped 50 degrees on Monday. Some of Melville's crew has been here since December, and he came a month ago to prepare the pipe. When the temperatures have risen, the crew has cleaned out the flat bottom and replaced it with new, man-made snow.
"Even at the time that we had to leave the halfpipe (on Sunday), we knew that it was not to a standard that the riders could even train in unfortunately," he said. "It's in adequate condition, however, we are still dealing with a particular type of snow condition."
The poor shape of the course on Sunday raised the criticism to a fever pitch, with White saying the bumps in the flat bottom were not good. U.S. teammate Danny Davis said the pipe wasn't fun to ride in its current condition.
Melville said the criticisms were fair and that he'd heard them from coaches. But, he blamed OBS for part of the problem, saying he lost six hours because it told him he could not work on the pipe while events were going on at the nearby moguls course.
"We feel totally disappointed about not only that decision but also the decision that they gave us was very short notice and we weren't able to do anything about it," he said. "We're just really gutted."
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OBS released a statement when asked about the matter. "We are unaware of any restrictions suggested by OBS that would impact course construction and are completely surprised by this report," the statement said.
In answering questions about the pipe conditions earlier Monday, IOC sports director Christophe Dubi said, "FIS is responsible for the organization and the management of their competitions. … What I should say though is the federation approved on the ground of technical requirements. The venues have been tested, tested a number of times."
FIS officials were not available to answer questions late Monday night, but in a statement, FIS race director Uwe Beier said, "The pipe conditions were not ideal at the first two trainings. This is why we decided to reschedule (Monday's) training to (Monday night) to give it more time after the measurements that had been taken last night to fix the issues. The weather conditions and a mix of other issues (machinery, maintenance, etc.) seemed to have made it difficult. However, we are ensuring that the team working there is doing everything possible to solve the situation as soon as possible."
Snow less than perfect
Regardless of who is to blame, safety concerns remains for today's men's halfpipe competition. A qualification round, semifinal and final are scheduled.
Teter is among riders who would like to see the competition postponed, but that sentiment was not the prevailing one after a training session here.
"I think if all the riders get together and push that it's not rideable yet" maybe organizers could change the schedule, she said. The women's halfpipe competition is Wednesday.
Melville says his crew leaves the pipe in safe conditions but is not responsible for its deterioration.
"It's the job of FIS and running the competition that look after the safety while the competition is running, and that's always high on their agenda."
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Riders said they did notice some improvement Sunday, when, Melville says, his crew wasn't able to work in the pipe and lost six hours it would have had to improve it.
"Even at the time that we had to leave the halfpipe, we knew that it was not to a standard that the riders could even train in, unfortunately," he said.
Melville said his team worked 16 hours overnight to cut deeper into the base of the pipe to remove loose snow. He planned to get back to work after the conclusion of the men's moguls competition here late Monday.
"What we're looking at right now, I'm happy with," he said. "Why I say adequate, I guess is because we've done everything. We feel comfortable with what we've done, but we're dealing with a snow situation that is less than perfect."
Going for it
The conditions drew comparisons to the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which faced troubles with the halfpipe because of warm weather there. Melville worked on that pipe and said the conditions are similar.
"This pipe is a lot steeper, and I believe it's a bit longer and that makes it easier," said two-time Olympic medalist Kelly Clark. "If you do have stuff go wrong in the middle of your run, you're able to get your speed back. So I actually prefer this one (to Vancouver)."
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The coaches were slated to meet again with Melville on Monday to address concerns. It's clear from talking to riders, who saw their practice moved from morning to evening and then cut short, that the frustration remains.
Teter said she was limited in the tricks she practiced, and Davis said he could change his run based on course conditions today. Riding switch, or backward, is harder through the flat bottom, he said.
Clark said she was able to dial in her semi-final and finals runs, completing the latter a few times in training on Monday.
"Today is the best the pipe's ridden," she said.
Preparing for less-than-ideal conditions was something she'd done since Vancouver.
"It's a mountain sport. It's an outdoor sport," said Mike Jankowski, head coach of the U.S. Freeskiing and Snowboarding teams. "We deal with the conditions week in week out. And whoever deals with the conditions the best is going to win a gold medal."
While the number of falls were troubling to Teter, who said the pipe "turned to soup" after riders had been on it for a while, it's not enough for her to reconsider her competition runs.
"I'm going to go for it, it's the Olympics," she said. "You don't want to look like an idiot out there doing nothing. But, it's definitely hard, really challenging."
Davis, although concerned, said he had a little faith the pipe would be fixed today by the time five hours of competition starts. The crew will be able to salt it and spray it with chemicals that should make the base more firm.
Ultimately, no matter how bad the pipe is, it's equally bad for everyone.
"We're just gonna have to rip it. Everybody's gonna have the same halfpipe," said Davis. "It'll be rideable tomorrow. The crowd will have a good experience of what halfpipe riding is, but the practice days have been challenging."
Contributing: Lindsay H. Jones
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