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Utah Olympic Park Ready for Winter Games - 2001-12-06

The Utah Olympic Park in the Wasatch Mountains will host the ski jumping, bobsled, luge, and skeleton (sled) events during February's Winter games. The venue has gone through nearly 10 years of construction to guarantee Olympic excellence.

The Utah Olympic Park is located just outside of Park City, less than an hour's drive from Salt Lake City. It may have officially opened in 1992, but there has been constant construction since that time to make the venue what it is today. Much of that construction was done to make the park as safe as possible for the athletes.

And host Steve Butler calls the facilities at Utah Olympic Park the most technically advanced in the world. He explains the uniqueness of the ski jumps. "Our jumps here are built down into the hill," he said. "With this new flying 'V' formation that they [the ski jumpers] do, it is a really big problem with crosswinds, because most jumps around the world are on pillars or on stilts. So what we have done here is we have excavated out the mountainside and put our jumps in the hill. Therefore it cuts down a lot on the crosswinds. The only winds we really get are northerly uphill winds and, if anything, it makes the athletes fly farther through the air."

But if officials are concerned about winds that are so strong that the ski jumpers might out jump the landing area, Butler says changes can easily be made. "I do not expect it to really be a problem," said Steve Butler. "We have accounted for that. If it is a situation, we have 45 different start positions on each one of our jumps. So we can move them up or down according to what the wind and weather conditions are for that day."

The ski jumpers are looking forward to taking advantage of the Park's thin air due to a 2,237-meter elevation, the highest jumping hills in the world. Ever since the new 'V' technique became popular in 1988, the ski jumpers can soar distances longer than a football field and with greater control.

Steve Butler and his coworkers had to be particularly meticulous when it came to the track used for bobsled, luge, and skeleton competitions. "We have 50 television cameras positioned around the track so that we constantly monitor the track to make sure there is nothing or nobody in the track at any point in time," he said. "The reason is it takes between 40 and 50 seconds to go down that track and if there was something in the track, somebody would get hurt."

The bobsled and skeleton racers will go through 15 turns while the luge racers, as required, will slide through 17 turns. For luge, a different starting area was built so the athletes could pass through the mandatory two extra turns before intersecting the common track, which is one of only 12 refrigerated certified tracks for these events in the world.

While some of the preparations at Utah Olympic Park were just standard safety procedures, other refinements have exceeded the norm. A deceleration loop was built at the end of the icy track in case the racers cannot stop their sled. According to Butler, most tracks around the world do not provide this luxury, instead allowing the sleds to crash into cardboard boxes.

Snowfall on the track's ice can be a major problem. Modern technology has not created a device to automatically remove the snow from the ice. Steve Butler says special covers have been placed along the track to block some of the snow. "We get, on the average, around 500 inches [12.7 meters] of snow here every single year," said Steve Butler. "And there is no machine in the whole entire world that can go up and down that track and clean the snow out. It all has to be done by hand, by our track workers. A couple of guys will groom it all into a pile and one guy will stand there and shovel all day to keep the snow out of the track. So we installed this shading system to keep most of the snow out of the track. We also discovered it protects it from the sun. It actually keeps it 30 degrees [17 Celsius] colder underneath those shades than it normally does in the ambient temperature."

As careful as the Utah Olympic Park officials have been, even they could not prevent a bizarre and dangerous incident from taking place. One day last winter, a moose managed to find its way onto the track and proceeded to give the icy chute a test run by accidentally sliding all the way down.

Another sliding event returns for the 2002 Olympic games. The Utah Olympic Park will have the privilege of hosting the first Olympic skeleton competition since 1948. Skeleton is similar to the luge, with the major difference being the athletes lie on their stomachs and go head first instead of feet first on their backs like in the luge.

All of the work put into this venue has shown results. During seven weeks last winter when seven World Cup events were held at Utah Olympic Park, 13 of the 16 track records were broken. During the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter games, Utah Olympic Park will be one of the busiest venues, hosting 14 events in 17 days.