But the middle Sunday of the Games brought something both unusual and disruptive: heavy snowfall in the city and near-blizzard conditions in the mountains, leading to the postponement of some events and a harrowing competitive environment in others.
“It’s brutal out there,” said Norwegian Alpine skier Lucas Braathen after the first run of the men’s giant slalom, held in near-white-out conditions at the National Alpine Skiing Centre in Yanqing, where just 54 of the 89 competitors made it to the bottom of the course in the first run.
At the more distant Zhangjiakou cluster, home to Nordic skiing and action events, the qualifying round for the women’s freestyle skiing slopestyle event — featuring Chinese American superstar Eileen Gu, already the gold medalist in women’s big air — was delayed and finally postponed because of the conditions. Later, qualifying for the women’s aerials was also postponed.
Organizers cited high winds and limited visibility as the reasons for the slopestyle postponement, although fresh, natural snow on top of the hard-packed, man-made snow also could have made for an unpredictable course.
That pushed the slopestyle qualifying round to Monday and the three-run medal round — where Gu hopes to collect her second gold — to Tuesday. However, snow is expected in Zhangjiakou on Monday, as well; starting Monday, there is a medal event in freestyle skiing scheduled every day through Feb. 19. The freestyle skiing federation said organizers were attempting to stage both qualifying and the finals on Monday.
In choosing safety and athletic integrity over keeping to a rigid schedule, Beijing 2022 organizers may have been influenced by the experience of their counterparts in South Korea four years ago. At the 2018 PyeongChang Games, women’s snowboard slopestyle was held in such strong wind that the final had to be cut from three runs down to two. That widely criticized decision severely affected the quality of the runs, with 41 of 50 runs in the final ending either in a crash or an athlete simply avoiding performing tricks.
In Yanqing on Sunday, Alpine officials called off training runs for women’s downhill, held on the steeper, faster and more dangerous course known as “The Rock,” but allowed the men’s giant slalom to proceed on the shorter, gentler “Ice River” course — where the conditions proved difficult, but not dangerous — though the afternoon’s second run was delayed as snow continued to fall.
“I didn’t see s***e,” laughed Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen after his first run of the GS. “I think it was difficult for everyone.” Asked if it was safe, he said, “Definitely.”
While most skiers were supportive of the decision to hold the competition Sunday in the snowy conditions, Austria’s Manuel Feller was not among them, specifically citing the visibility and the accumulation of fresh snow around the gates on the course as problematic.
“The first run was far from responsible in my opinion,” said Feller, who sat seventh after the first run, but skied out on his second run and did not finish. “The visibility was so bad you didn’t see anything. The second run, they already waited so long until it’s dark again … If you DNF in a race [because] you are not able to ski next to the gates, because there are so many bumps and so much snow next to the gates, it’s definitely not good conditions.”
Yanqing’s Xiaohaituo Mountain range sits just outside the Gobi Desert and gets about eight inches of precipitation a year. Sunday’s snowfall, the first of this winter, could account for nearly half that annual average.
“It’s Alpine skiing — we always have to adapt,” said France’s Mathieu Faivre after the first run of the GS. “Today we’ve got every element to adapt to … There were moments where I didn’t really know where I was, or where I was going.”
Beijing itself rarely gets snow, with an average winter here seeing less than one inch. (July, by contrast, is its wettest month, with an average of more than six inches of rain.) But when Sunday dawned, the city already was blanketed by a dusting of snow, with heavier accumulation still to come.
“Finally it feels like the Winter Olympics!!” Team USA curler Christopher Plys tweeted Sunday morning, punctuating his post with the hashtag #letitsnow.
Plys’s excitement, however, was understandable: His sport is contested indoors.
Ava Wallace contributed to this report in Zhangjiakou.