In Yanqing, the Wind Blows and the Skiers Wait. And Wait. And Wait.


YANQING, China — The chatter about the wind started on Thursday, as soon as Matthias Mayer of Austria completed the first training run down the slope nicknamed “Rock.”

By Sunday, when the wind forced a one-day postponement of the men’s downhill, there was only one topic of discussion: It is very, very windy on the Olympic slopes.

“It is always going to be windy,” said Bryce Bennett of the United States, who would have been the first racer down the mountain in the men’s downhill on Sunday.
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“It’s just how this place is.”

The winds have been fairly consistent at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Center, with gusts of 15 miles per hour and up, especially in the middle of the downhill run. But four days after competitors first put skis to snow on the Olympic course, the wind has already knocked out two official days of competition: Saturday’s final training session and then, on Sunday, the downhill, Alpine skiing’s showcase event. The race is now scheduled to take place on Monday, between runs of the women’s giant slalom.

Maybe.

It is unclear that the winds will subside on Monday, according to forecasts, during what is traditionally a season when the region that includes Beijing is prone to windstorms.

Wind can be a dangerous problem in Alpine skiing, causing racers to crash as they fly over jumps and knocking skiers off their lines — and out of contention — if they get hit with even a minor gust in the middle of their run. It can also wreak havoc with schedules, and has led some skiers to question if a proper race can ever be held here.

Bennett said he still hoped the downhill could be run “as fair as possible.” But if not, he said with resignation, “then it is what it is.”

Race organizers on Sunday announced three one-hour delays as they waited and hoped for the wind to subside on a day that was relatively calm and temperate at both ends of the course but blustery on a long, exposed middle stretch. The ski officials eventually gave up, called off the race and announced that they would try again on Monday afternoon.

Beijing Olympic organizers did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the conditions.

The postponement set up a star-studded day of skiing — presuming the wind does not prevent it from happening — that will see the men’s downhill runs slip in between the first and second heats of the women’s giant slalom. That race serves as the Beijing Olympics debut for the American star Mikaela Shiffrin.

To accommodate the change, the first run of the giant slalom was moved up to 9:30 a.m. from 10:15. The men’s downhill will then take place at noon, followed by the final run of the women’s giant slalom at 2:30 p.m. The events take place on different courses, but their collision required some negotiations among organizers and Olympic television.

What no one can say for sure is whether the wind will subside enough to allow Yanqing to be suitable for Olympic racing, or if it will turn the competitions into contests of luck in which start times and wind gusts supersede skill in determining the winner.

On Thursday, the first day skiers tried the downhill, they said the mountain was just as windy as their scouting reports had suggested it would be. On Friday, a frigid and gusty day when training was nearly called off, everyone agreed with the assessment of Dominik Paris of Italy, a veteran racer and world champion in super-G.

“If the race had been held today,” he said, “it would not have been fair.”

On Saturday and Sunday, the wind was deemed too dangerous for racing, even as temperatures had risen into the mid-30s by Sunday, and sun splashed the mountain.

It is not uncommon for weather to cause postponements and delays at Olympic Alpine competitions. Rain caused delays at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, and high winds did the same in Pyeongchang in 2018.

A larger issue with the venue at Yanqing is that the top skiers have never raced on the course. Without test events or adequate training, the downhill run — and the other courses — remained something of a mystery to the world’s top skiers. Many are still unsure what it will feel like to attack the course at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour.

Bernhard Russi, a famed course designer and the 1972 Olympic downhill champion, designed the course at Yanqing, but only after Chinese officials had selected the mountain as the location for the Alpine events.

The upper part of the mountain where the racing is taking place is largely an exposed rock face in a range of mountains that rises from a plain on the northwest edge of Beijing. According to skiers and coaches, the winds are present everywhere on the mountain, but they become particularly troublesome around the so-called Sugar Jump that is about halfway down the two-mile course.

Even Shiffrin, who has skied on only the training slopes so far but may compete in five events, has chimed in on the wind, which she said was likely to play a major role in determining the winners and losers — or perhaps worse.

“Ideally, nobody is going to face one of the really big gusts where you get nearly blown off the mountain,” she said on Friday. “You have the consistent winds and then the minor gust, and every so often you get a tornado gust you get lost in.”

The worst may be yet to come.

Beijing has infrequent snow in winter, which is the dry season; but it still has storms, which often show up as strong, dry, freezing winds. The city’s weather forecasts each winter revolve around when the next strong winds may arrive.

Ji Chongping, the chief meteorologist of Beijing, warned at a news conference on Saturday that the city — which includes Yanqing on its northwestern outskirts — could expect fairly strong winds on Monday and next Sunday, as well as on Feb. 18.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting.



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