February 18, 2006

Blowing hot and cold — the ice trick of Turin

By Jane Barrett

TURIN (Reuters) - How cold is a block of ice?

That question keeps Dennis Allen busy from morning to night
as he cools and warms the Palavela rink in Turin, trying to
concoct perfect conditions for two very different sports.

As figure skaters twirl and spin during practice, Allen
takes the ice's temperature and starts to freeze it harder for
the short track skating competition later in the evening.

"It's hard to satisfy everyone," Allen said, sitting back
and surveying the rink between his many resurfacing sessions.

"The figure skaters like softer ice so they can stick their
toe picks in to take off and do their jumps, whereas short
trackers want to grip but not get too far into the ice."

Keeping everybody happy is a science and an art.

Figure skaters come on and the ice has to be between -3 and
-4 degrees Celsius with room temperature of about 15 degrees.
Short trackers need ice of -7 to -8 degrees Celsius and air
heat of about 11. And it takes an hour to change the ice by one

"The other night, we had to open all the doors during the
short track to cool it off. The crowd, the body heat, the
lights -- it was all warming the rink up," Allen said.

Despite Turin being in the depths of winter, he has also
switched the air conditioning on.

Skaters from both disciplines keep in touch with "the ice
master" to let him know how the rink feels beneath their

After some of the Olympic short track races, some skaters
have complained the ice is too soft, making it harder for them
to accelerate and pass their opponents. Others have said they
needed more grip on the corners.

"The big thing for us is to give them a fair and safe
surface. When they go down in short track, they often take a
pile of people with them and that's when accidents happen,"
said Allen, who normally works at the Olympic Center in Lake

The other challenge in short track is to smooth down the
ice after races in which skaters, leaning tightly into corners
as they scream around at 40 kph, knuckle the ice into ridges
with their centrifugal force.

Every few races, Allen and his team arrive with their
"zamboni," big vans that shave down the ice and add more water
to keep the surface flat and the thickness constant.

"At the end of the day, the athletes have trained to their
best," said Allen. "Nothing should get in their way."