Sochi's Humidity Keeps Olympic Ice Makers Working Overtime

Feb 19, 2014
Originally published on February 19, 2014 10:25 am

In Sochi, balmy weather has bedeviled some snowboarders and skiers. The snow is sometimes, well, slush. But inside the Winter Olympics' arenas, the ice is universally praised, though it's taking some work to keep things cool.

It's not the heat, it's the humidity that's leading ice makers to work overtime at the games.

That's paid off, because athletes in Sochi have been gushing about the ice.

"I think all the athletes are in love with the ice," 19-year-old U.S. figure skater Jason Brown said of the stuff at the Iceberg Skating Palace. "It's soft and it's fast — all the things that a skater looks for."

Canadian curler Brad Jacobs seconded the thought. He waxed on about the ice maker at his arena, which is called the Ice Cube.

"My hat's off to him," Jacobs said. "He's doing a great job He's a great icemaker. I don't think there's anybody in the world that's better than him."

Over at the Adler Arena, where speedskating competition is underway, Dimitri Grigoriev is the ice meister.

"Not all ice is created equal, because they all have different purposes ... so they're created in different ways, there are different recipes," Grigoriev said. "Different secrets to making ice."

There's figure skating ice, which is softer. There's speedskating ice, where skaters need maximum glide. Curlers have to walk on their ice.

Grigoriev said one of the secrets to his great ice is that it's old. Crews laid it down about 15 months ago. With constant maintenance and resurfacing, they're able to make it more compact and cleaner, with fewer air bubbles. And he said they took extraordinary measures in making the ice.

"We had classical playing here, so that the ice crystalizes in the proper hard manner, not rock music, not silence," he said. "We actually have Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing during certain stages of preparation."

Grigoriev said research shows that his method works.

"I am serious about it, look it up!" he said, adding, "Noise creates vibration and during the freezing process of water, those vibrations influence the type of ice you get."

NPR's research library looked into the claim. They couldn't find reputable research to back it up, though it's a sort of folklore in a small part of the ice-making world.

Even with his magic recipe, Grigoriev said he's struggling with the heat in Sochi. Temperatures are often in the mid-50s.

"The thing we have to fight with in Sochi, being right next to the sea, is the humidity," he said. "That is a problem if you can call it that."

Humidity levels outside the rink have been hovering between 70 and 100 percent. The humidity inside the rink, by contrast, must be about 30 percent, give or take. There also must be different climate zones for the skaters and audience. So for Grigoriev, the most important part of ice making is actually the air system. And it takes constant supervision.

"No disrespect to my colleagues at other venues or their icemakers whatsoever, but it's different and it's not as difficult," Grigoriev said. "How flat it should be, how cold it should be. How dry it should be. It's by far much wider and deeper in scope [at the Adler Arena] than any other ice rink."

Given the multiple Olympic records that have been set at his rink, Grigoriev says the years of work have been worth it.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Time for sports, and let's start with the Winter Olympic Games. Warmer than expected weather has caused trouble for skiers and snowboarders in Sochi outside. And it's also making things more difficult inside where the skating takes place. That has the icemakers working overtime.

NPR's Sonari Glinton has this report.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: If you talk to the athletes about conditions here in Sochi, one thing gets universal praise.

JASON BROWN: All the athletes are in love with the ice. And it's soft and it's fast, and it's everything that a skater looks for.

GLINTON: That's U.S. figure skater Jason Brown. Here's Canadian curler Brad Jacobs talking about the icemaker at his arena, which called the Ice Cube.

BRAD JACOBS: Today obviously he's fighting this heat. This is probably one of the host days that we've had here. So my hat's off to him. He's doing a great job. He's a great icemaker. I don't think there's anyone in the world that's better than him.

GLINTON: I could play you more of this, athletes are raving about the ice - no smack from them. But I wanted to meet some of the people behind all this great ice.

DMITRY GRIGORIEV: This is the main arena. It's also we're now in the press tribunes, so we're going down to the field of play, to the outside parts of it.

GLINTON: This is Dmitry Grigoriev. He's in charge of the Adler speed skating arena.

GRIGORIEV: Not all ice is created equal because they all have different purposes. So they're created in different ways, there are different recipes and different secrets to making different ice.

GLINTON: There's figure skating ice which is softer. There's speed skating ice where you need maximum glide. You need to be able to walk on curling ice, and so on.

What's one of Girgoriev's secrets? Well, this is old ice, they laid it down about 15 months ago. With constant maintenance and resurfacing, they're able to make it more compact and cleaner, with fewer air bubbles. When they were making ice, Grigoriev says they took extraordinary measures.

GRIGORIEV: We had classical music being played here to make sure that the ice crystallizes in the proper hard manner - not rock music or not silence.

We actually have Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" playing during the certain stages of preparation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLINTON: Do you think that really makes a difference?

GRIGORIEV: Oh, the research show that yes.

GLINTON: What research show that?

GRIGORIEV: No, I am serious about it. Look it up. Depending on the ambient noise - because noise, music noise creates vibrations - and during the freezing process of water, those vibrations influence the type of ice you get.

GLINTON: So we did look it up. And by we I mean the NPR research library, and we couldn't find reputable research to back up the claims. Though it's sort of folklore in a small part of the ice-making world. Regardless, Grigoriev says one thing that has been a problem is the weather.

GRIGORIEV: The thing we have to fight with in Sochi, being right next to the sea, is the humidity. Yes, that is a problem if you can call it that.

GLINTON: The humidity inside the rink needs to be about 30 percent give or take. But the humidity outside the rink has been hovering between 70 and a hundred percent. There also needs to be a different climate zone for the skaters and audience. So for Grigoriev, the most important part of ice making is the air conditioning system, which takes constant supervision.

GRIGORIEV: No disrespect to my colleagues at other venues or their icemakers whatsoever. But it's different and it's not as difficult how flat it should be, how cold it should be, how dry it should be. It's just by far much wider and deeper in scope than any other ice rink.

GLINTON: Given the multiple Olympic records that have been set at his rink, Grigoriev says the years of work have been worth it.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.