Bad weather, a fenced-off flame: It’s one problem after another at a limping Olympics

By Erin Mcclam, AP
Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A glitch for every gold at the Vancouver Games

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — From fire to ice, nothing seems to be going right at the Olympics.

The torch malfunctioned. Warm weather turned the slopes and the event schedule to slop. A Zamboni had to ride to the rescue from Calgary following a meltdown at the speedskating rink.

By Tuesday, the Glitch Games were in full swing: 20,000 standing-room tickets for the snowboarding venue were voided because fans had fallen between the bales of hay under the melting layers of trucked-in snow.

Want to take a picture of the Olympic cauldron? Make sure that camera is pressed up against the chain-link fence — provided there’s room to squeeze in and a Vancouver 2010 banner isn’t in the way.

Organizers expect to unveil a plan Wednesday to address the rising public outcry and bring people closer to the flame, the most distinguished and enduring symbol of any Olympics.

“Perhaps,” conceded Renee Smith-Valade, a spokeswoman for the organizing committee, “we did underestimate the degree to which people would want to get close to it.”

Perhaps. At a press conference, a Canadian TV reporter asked organizers why the flame was hidden behind “a ratty-looking prison-camp fence.” And the Globe and Mail newspaper chose to allude to another Olympic city — Berlin.

Addressing the head of the Vancouver Games, the paper cried: “Mr. Furlong, tear down this fence!”

Of course, no scheduling or logistics issue — or sporting event, for that matter — seems significant in light of the death of a Georgian luger on the first day of the Olympics.

And, to be fair, there have been bright spots. Moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau gave Canada its first gold medal in three home Olympics. NHL superstar Sidney Crosby has the Canadian men’s hockey team looking for gold. NBC ratings have been strong.

But aside from that, it’s been one problem after another for a games governed not so much by the Olympic creed as by Murphy’s Law. Shades of Atlanta.

The canceled tickets at Cypress Mountain — 28,000 in all — mean about $1.5 million in lost revenue for the games, and disappointment for people who spent $50 to $65 to see events like the halfpipe and snowboardcross.

They’ll get refunds, although anyone who bought secondhand may be out of luck. Fans whose tickets were still good, and who went up the mountain Tuesday to see events, were treated to blinding snow.

Athletes weren’t spared, either. Timing foulups marred both biathlon events Tuesday. A Swedish woman was held up at her start gate for 14 seconds, and two of the men went off too early. Officials later corrected for the errors.

“It is embarrassing,” said Norbert Baier, the International Biathlon Union’s technical delegate. “Why do we have this incompetence?”

The competition schedule, meanwhile, looks like it’s been run over by a bobsled.

On Tuesday alone, the men’s super-combined, up in the mountains at Whistler, was postponed because of an overnight snowstorm. The snowboardcross finals were rescheduled. Women’s downhill training was canceled.

This after downhill training was postponed repeatedly earlier in the Olympics because of wet weather that messed with the snow. It’s been so mild that locals have jokingly called it the Vancouver Summer Olympics.

“It’s getting ridiculous, for sure, how much changing of the schedule and shuffling around has been happening,” said Thomas Vonn, husband and coach of Lindsey Vonn, a multimedal favorite.

Then again, each day of canceled training gives Vonn’s badly bruised right shin more time to heal. For everyone else, the delays are a mounting annoyance.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 the worst, this is a 10. That’s for sure,” said Patrick Riml, head coach of Canada’s women’s Alpine team.

“Wouldn’t mind racing already,” American Alpine skier Ted Ligety tweeted.

Even the little things are going wrong. A spigot went off at the luge track, spraying a section near the finish as a German racer was getting ready to start her run. She had to wait two minutes, then slid to a bronze.

Indoors, it’s the ice escapades. At the Richmond Oval, the speedskating venue, the resurfacing machine went on the blink Monday. Instead of a track as smooth as glass, it left piles of slush and pools of water.

So the Olympics, which has a sponsorship deal with Olympia ice resurfacers, had to call in a replacement — a Zamboni from a whole province over in Calgary, specifically designed for the size of a speedskating oval.

Vancouver organizers say they’re responding as best they can to problems mostly out of their control.

“It’s a little like losing your luggage,” Smith-Valade said at a press conference where she was bombarded by questions about all that’s gone wrong. “It’s not whether the luggage gets lost — it’s how you deal with it.”

All this started on Friday night, at the opening ceremony, where the traditional climax, the lighting of the Olympic flame, was a bust because of a hydraulic failure.

One of the four legs of the indoor cauldron failed to rise out of its trap door in the floor, leaving the structure weirdly unbalanced and one of the final four torchbearers standing around awkwardly with nothing to do.

It’s been enough to draw comparisons to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the gold standard of glitchy games. The press in Britain — which gets the next Olympics, in London — has questioned whether these are the worst games ever.

The International Olympic Committee insists it has no second thoughts.

“If we had the decision again, we would take the same decision,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “It would come to Vancouver.”

AP Sports Writers Graham Dunbar, Howard Fendrich, Stephen Wilson and Tom Withers contributed to this report.

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