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Ice Gurus of the Turin Olympics


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick. Olympic news alert now.

(Soundbite of chime)

If you don't want to know Olympic results, turn away from the radio just for about ten seconds. Okay, here it goes. American Olympic fans can celebrate again. Julia Mancuso won the women's giant slalom in Turin today.

Okay, everyone should already know by now that U.S. figure skater Sasha Cohen last night had to settle for the silver after falling on the ice following her first jump. And, it is the ice, not the skater we're going to talk about next. You may not know, but all ice is not equal. Jill Hunter Pellettieri is managing editor of the online magazine Slate, where she has an essay this week on Olympic ice-making gurus.

Jill, I had no idea there were Olympic ice-making gurus. Isn't ice just ice?

Ms. JILL HUNTER PELLETTIERI (Managing Editor, Slate magazine): Well, Alex, that's what I thought, but it's much more complicated then you'd think. Not only do they have to create the rink, but maintain it and clean it and customize it for every sport.

CHADWICK: You go through a description of this. They first lay on this kind of misted layer, or several layers of ice, and then they paint that white. That hadn't occurred to me, but now that I recall those television pictures, oh, that's why the ice looks that way.

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Exactly, exactly. I always just assumed that was how ice looked when it formed, but it is man-made.

CHADWICK: How cold should this ice be for various conditions? It didn't occur to me that a hockey player would need different ice than a figure skater, and a speed skater. What do they all want?

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Well, you know, in figure skating, they actually need the ice a little bit softer, which made sense to me when I started thinking about it. in order to, you know, achieve all those perfect jumps, they need something to sort of dig their skates into to the get their lift off.

In speed skating, on the other hand, they really are gliding. That's what their sport is, so they want the hardest, smoothest, coldest ice around. And Mark Metzer, who I spoke with, who's the ice guru for speed skating, said that the longer the race is, the colder that they like the ice.

CHADWICK: So, the short speed skaters, they don't need ice quite as cold as the long speed skaters?

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Exactly. They like it, I think, around 23 degrees, whereas the long track speed skaters, it's closer to 18 or 19 degrees.

CHADWICK: And the hockey players, they want it a few degrees warmer, because it might be a little bit easier to turn on, but not so warm as a figure skater?

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Right. They still need it cold enough to, you know, do some fast gliding, and for the puck to glide across the ice, but they also have to make sharp turns, you know, certainly sharper turns than a speed skater's going to be making, so.

CHADWICK: And all of these ice conditions, they use what, infrared devices of some kind to make sure that it's just at the right temperature, and they're able to actually make ice that's either 19 degrees or 21 degrees. It seems remarkable.

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Yes, it's very scientific, and lots of the people I spoke with said that, you know, the technology has really come a long way. So, they have these infrared thermometers to, you know, monitor the ice temperature. The base of the rink itself has pipes going through it, and they put antifreeze in that to change the temperature of the ice. And they also really closely monitor the temperature in the arena itself, because everything--from how many spectators you have, to how cold it is outside that day--really can affect the temperature of the ice.

Unfortunately, the ice-makers can sometimes become a bit of a scapegoat for poor performance, and there have been some complaints from the curlers at the Olympics about their ice.

CHADWICK: Right, those are the other people, with the sliding stones, which need to slide, you know, a certain way, or be able to curl to one side or the other and that has to do with the ice.

Ms. PELLETTIERI: It does. You know, in curling, they go through this process where the rink is pebbled, and those are little frozen drops of water that are laid on the ice to help reduce the friction between the rock and the ice, so that the stones can glide better. Apparently, every ice guru has his own way of pebbling the rink, which can really affect the game, and it can all get very political. Regionally, at least. The Canadians like a healthy degree of curl. They like it around four to five feet of curl. Whereas, you know, some Europeans--and the ice guru is Swedish, it turns out--he's made the rink with less curl, about two feet of curl.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Jill Hunter Pellettieri. She's Managing Editor for Slate magazine online, where you'll find her article on Olympic ice gurus. Jill, thank you.

Ms. PELLETTIERI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.