PYEONGCHANG (AFP) – Freezing weather at the Winter Olympics threatens to force some athletes and staff to pull out of Friday’s opening ceremony as Pyeongchang shivers in temperatures plunging to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Forget Russian doping, North Korea and US speed queen Lindsey Vonn: much of the talk among those arriving in South Korea this week is the brutal cold.
The Pyeongchang Games are shaping up to be one of the coldest Olympics ever.
Italy are among the countries fearing the dangerous effects of the big chill and are advising their competitors to ensure they are moving at all times during the traditional curtainraiser on Friday.
Doctors with the Italian team have ordered coaches and staff with heart problems or diabetes to keep in the warm instead – the stadium for the opening ceremony is open to the elements with no roof.
New Zealand are taking no chances and Peter Wardell, their chef de mission, admitted yesterday: “We are a little trepidatious about the opening ceremony, which is going to be at night, and how we are all going to keep warm if it’s going to be these sorts of temperatures.
“They tell us it’s likely to be minus eight, minus 10, which is actually quite warm in comparison (to today).
“But it’s still a big ask to have athletes standing outside and then sitting for at least an hour and a half in the cold.”
He added: “Quite a few (Kiwi athletes) may decide they don’t want to march, particularly those competing really soon after.”
The mercury dipped to minus 13 degrees Celsius (9F) yesterday early evening and was set to go as low as minus 20. That would put Pyeongchang on a par with parts of Siberia.
Winter athletes are used to being exposed to the cold, but even some of them say they are feeling the effects with the vicious wind making for a punishing climate.
Noriaki Kasai, the Japanese ski jumper, said: “I don’t think the cold will be a problem while I’m jumping because it’s just for a short time.
“The scariest bit will be the opening ceremony. I’ll have to stick heat patches all over my body for that.”
Organisers are taking measures to make sure that the athletes and 35,000 spectators at the opening ceremony do not freeze.
They are putting up a windscreen to block the powerful winds and setting up 40 portable gas heaters, along with 27 heating respite areas.
Organisers will also issue survival kits that include a blanket, heating packs for the hands and feet and a heating pad that spectators can sit on.
Ian Chesterman, Australia’s chef de mission, said they had been in talks with their kit manufacturer for more than three years about how to keep their athletes warm.
“Whilst this is the coldest Olympic Games for a while, Australia’s athletes regularly perform and train in equally or colder conditions,” he said.
“From memory, Lillehammer in 1994 remains the coldest on record with regular temperatures of minus 25.”But not everyone is suffering. Some say it is the Winter Olympics, after all, and others are relishing the cold.
Bryce Bennett, an alpine skier for the United States, said: “We’re ski racers, we deal with being cold a lot. “It will be interesting how everyone adapts to it.” Park Hyun-Joo, 18, a volunteer, donned ear muffs, scarf, gloves and several layers to ward off the elements.
“It’s cold, especially at night, but I can endure it and it’s our duty to volunteer for the Olympics,” she said stoically.