The ice masters of the Winter Games.

Scenes from the Olympics.
Feb. 22 2006 3:21 PM

Olympic Ice Gurus

They're not just glorified Zamboni drivers.

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In Turin, there are almost as many ice-makers as there are Olympic events. Mark Messer, who's known for creating the "fastest ice in the world," supervises the long-track speed-skating surface. Dan Craig, the NHL's ice man, is in charge of the hockey ice. Dennis Allen mans the short-track and figure-skating rink. And, of course, there are curling ice masters Leif Öhman and Teo Frans. Why are there are so many ice gurus? How hard can it really be to make ice?

Harder than you think. Today's ice guru is much more than a glorified Zamboni driver. They must aim to please, tailoring the ice to each athlete's needs. Apolo Anton Ohno expects an entirely different rink than Sasha Cohen. Because their sport is all about gliding, speed skaters need some of the hardest, smoothest, coldest ice in Turin. The general rule of thumb: the longer the race, the colder the ice. Short-track speed skaters prefer a surface that's around 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Long-trackers like Chad Hedrick like it even colder, around 18 or 19 degrees. According to Messer, long-track speed skaters are particularly sensitive to any imperfections on the ice because of the width and length of their blades.

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Figure skaters, on the other hand, must dig their skates into the ice to pull off those triple axels. Allen, the sport's ice man, says figure skaters prefer to skate "in the ice" rather than on top of it. As a result, Turin's figure-skating ice is softer than the speed-skating surface, hovering between 25 and 26.5 degrees. Hockey players like it in the middle, around 22 to 24 degrees. The players and the puck need it cold enough to glide. If it's too frigid, though, it's harder to make sharp turns, and the ice can crack, causing players to lose their footing.

How do ice gurus achieve such precision? They use an infrared thermometer to check the temperature of the ice surface, and they change the temperature by running a kind of antifreeze through pipes under the rink. (The temperature above the rink is carefully controlled by a computer that runs the arena's air units.)

The construction of each ice slab requires the precision of an engineer. First, the floor gets misted with several layers of pure, mineral-free water to form the rink's base; that surface then receives an even coat of white paint to producethat immaculate wintry glow. After a couple more applications of water, the ice-maker paints his rink with the appropriate markings. Next, the rink is flooded with more water to create sheets of ice about 1/16 of an inch thick. Finally, a Zamboni cleans the ice by shaving off a layer; it then applies hot water to the surface. The hot water penetrates the ice, helping to meld the subsurface layers of ice into a uniform block. It also has fewer air bubbles in it than cold water, which makes for stronger ice once it solidifies.

Given the complexity of the construction, it's not uncommon for the ice, and by extension the ice master, to become a scapegoat. Didn't play well? The ice was too soft! Too hard. Too messy. The excuses go on.

Hockey ice often gets blamed. Before the revered Craig became the NHL guru, it was even more common for coaches or players to point their finger at the ice. But at the Olympics, it's the curlers who are whining.

The sport hinges on the amount of "curl" on the ice—how much the stone curves as it makes its way to the house. Consequently, curling requires a more precisely level surface than, say, hockey. Before each game, the rink is "pebbled," a process in which the ice is lightly sprinkled with frozen drops of water to diminish friction between the rock and the ice so that the stones can glide better.

The Olympic ice only has about 2 feet of curl, estimates Ian MacAulay, a Canadian ice-maker who introduced me to the world of curling politics. MacAulay says that Turin's ice master, the Swedish Öhman, "doesn't believe in too much swing."

"I like more swingy ice," Norwegian curler Paal Trulsen told the AP at the start of the games. "That's why they call it curling." Other Europeans prefer much less curl, while Canadians, MacAulay explained, like a healthy 4 to 5 feet of curl.

With such varying standards for their playgrounds, it's tough to meet every athlete's needs. When MacAulay's players complain, he retorts, "You have no idea what I grew up on." Translation: If you don't like it, why don't you go play outside.

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