Art of ice-making key to many Olympic winter sports

For most people, ice is just frozen water, while the making of ice is the domain freezers.

Not so in Nagano, where a group of highly specialized ice ''meisters'' prepare the tracks and glistening surfaces required for five of the seven sports featured in the Feb. 7-22 Olympic Winter Games.

Ice quality makes or breaks performance in bobsled, luge, curling, ice hockey and speed skating events.

Athletes' needs, air temperature and humidity are among the factors that must be taken into account in the quest for perfect ice.

Sunshine and rain can ruin a bobsled track, while body heat from capacity crowds may undermine the best ice management of indoor rinks.

And each sport has its own idea as to what constitutes ideal ice conditions, said Hiroshi Higuchi, ice rink manager for the Nagano Olympics organizing committee (NAOC).

Higuchi is the ice master at Big Hat and Aqua Wing, two brand-new indoor stadiums in Nagano built for Olympic ice hockey competition, as well as the White Ring skating arena, where short-track speed skating and figure skating events will take place.

While the ice at Nagano's Spiral bobsled and luge track is made from ordinary tap water, all ice rinks, including Nagano's M-Wave speed skating arena and the Kazakoshi curling venue in Karuizawa, use purified, deionized water.

''The minerals contained in tap water would break down the ideal shape of the ice crystals,'' Higuchi said.

The colder and thinner the ice the harder it is, he explained. Consequently, figure skaters, who need ''cushioning'' for their high-flying jumps to prevent injuries in a crash, get a 4.5-centimeter-thick ice layer chilled to a moderate minus 3 C.

Short-track speed skaters face faster ice cooled to minus 5 C.

But aggressive, fast-moving ice hockey players get 3 cm of ice chilled to minus 7 C. ''Ice hockey requires very hard ice to make the puck move fast,'' Higuchi said.

Takashi Takano, in charge of the ice at M-Wave, Japan's first indoor 400-meter speed skating track, said he aims to keep the 3 cm of ice at his rink at slightly above minus 3 C.

Takano, a former speed skater and longtime ice manager, said his main objective is to make an ice surface that is fast and provides equal conditions for all contestants.

Over longer distances gliding is easier on softer ice, he said, adding he hopes at least one world record is broken at M-Wave in Nagano.

At the Spiral, Asia's first artificial bobsled and luge track, German icemaker Ralf Mende's biggest challenge is to evenly cool the 1,700-meter-long track with its novel environment-friendly but ''sluggish'' cooling system.

While commonly used ammonia coolant can be stopped in the system by shutting off parts of the track that do not need cooling, the Spiral's brine freezing agent must be kept in constant circulation, making it difficult to counter sudden temperature changes, Mende said.

That objective is made even more difficult when Nagano's intense winter sun hits parts of the track that are covered with a 2-3 cm sheet of ice, leading to temperature differences of up to 10 C between the sunny and shadowy curves, Mende says.

Sun sails covering the exposed curves until shortly before the start of competition help maintain frosty temperatures, ideally minus 10-15 C. In addition, the races have been moved to the afternoon to avoid the sunniest hours.

Mende and his team work up to 18 hours a day grooming the track, including many hours spent scraping away bumps, excess ice and filling holes and cracks with a mixture of snow and water.

The key to a good track, he said, is timely repairs, sometimes even between races, to prevent small damage from turning into a ''catastrophe.''

Like Mende, who was ''borrowed'' for the duration of the Nagano Games from the bobsed track in Altenberg, Leif Ohman was brought from Sweden to handle the tricky job of ensuring top conditions for Olympic curlers at the Kazakoshi Park Arena.

Ohman usually makes the ice from scratch by flooding the bare concrete arena. He must ensure that the surface is absolutely level for the sport, which is making its Olympic debut in Nagano as a medal event.

''Less than 1 millimeter difference in the level and the stone will feel it,'' Ohman said.

Ohman, himself a longtime curler, decides on the ice temperature, usually around minus 5 C, after testing the ice with the granite stones of the sport which weigh up to 19.96 kilograms.

Curling is possible on any material as long as it is completely level and has ''pebbles,'' frozen drops of water creating a rough surface, he said.

When swept with brooms and brushes the pebbles temporarily melt to help the stones maintain momentum.

''The pebbles are the most important,'' Ohman said. Sprinkled on the ice with a watering can, the right temperature is key to ensuring the pebbles are solid enough to last an entire 150-minute game. Experience is the key.

''It's very hard to make ice for curling if you don't curl,'' he said.

(Kyodo News)

(February 2, 1998)