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GOODWILL GAMES : Where's Ice? Competitors Were Asking : Skating: Unusually warm temperatures sabotage organizers' ability to get rinks ready.

August 03, 1994|RANDY HARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Located on the Gulf of Finland, divided into islands by branches of the Neva River, St. Petersburg has long been ruled by its relationship to water. But during the Goodwill Games, it has not been a benevolent despot. Organizers have found it difficult to swim in, sail on or even freeze.

Ten days after the swimming competition was postponed for 24 hours because of a calamity involving the pool's filtration system, two other events had to be rescheduled Tuesday.

And when organizers arrived at Yubileiny early this morning, they were disappointed to discover that the ice in the main rink still was not thick enough for the figure skaters. According to sources within the organizing committee, they would announce later in the morning that the first night of figure skating competition would be moved from the 7,000-seat Yubileiny to the 2,400-seat SKA Ice Palace.

Rescheduling events is not unusual for the yachting competitors, who, as was the case at the Central Yacht Club, often have too little wind for their sails. With an afternoon breeze, they were in the water after only a two-hour delay.

But there was nothing normal about Tuesday for the short track speed skaters, who did not know until 1 1/2 hours before they went onto the ice where, when or even whether they were going to compete.

Jack Kelly, Goodwill Games president, said both the sailors and the speed skaters were victims of the elements, a still morning in the case of the former and an unrelenting heat wave in the case of the latter. "Like acts of God," he said. But there was a suspicion among speed skating officials and athletes that humans also contributed to their predicament.

The ice follies began Sunday when a power outage in the section of the city where the Yubileiny Sport Palace, the scheduled site for speed skating and figure skating, is located. That forced the building's engineer to postpone his ice-making arrangements in the main rink, and began turning the ice of the practice rink into slush.

Monday brought Day 10 of temperatures in the high 80s, sustained heat virtually unprecedented in St. Petersburg. As Yubileiny is not air-conditioned, the engineer discovered by mid-afternoon that the water on the floor of the main rink was remaining wet. His response was to borrow the refrigeration system from the practice rink, which was immediately closed.

That decision met with no resistance from the skaters, who already had given up trying to accomplish anything on it.

While the figure skaters were transferred to another rink for practices Monday afternoon, the speed skaters were told that they would compete as scheduled Tuesday, beginning at 2 p.m. To anyone who had seen the Yubileiny rink, that seemed impossible. But Kelly told the Russian organizers to make it happen or face the same ridicule they received over their brown pool water.

If the organizing committee's president, Anatoly Sobchak, like the captain of the Titanic, who also had a problem with ice, had kept a log Tuesday, it would have read something like this:

--10:30 a.m.: At the daily news briefing, St. Petersburg's deputy mayor, Vitali Mutko, says: "So far, so good. Everything is taking place in orderly fashion."

--10:31 a.m.: Mutko reveals two postponements, the yachting from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and the speed skating from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Kelly says that the ice at Yubileiny is 1 1/2 centimeters thick, about half as thick as necessary for speed skating, and that it probably would be ready by 2 p.m. "But we don't want to risk it," he says.

--12:30 p.m.: After some discussion with security guards, who chased an inquiring ABC television producer and her camera operator out of the building Monday, reporters are allowed into the Yubileiny rink, where they find no ice. It looks like a driveway after a rainstorm. There is a slab of concrete with some puddles.

--4 p.m.: Officials decide to meet two hours later at Yubileiny to determine whether the speed skating competition can proceed as rescheduled.

--6 p.m.: Officials convene at the rink only to be asked to leave the building by security guards who are about to begin their daily check of the building for bombs.

--6:20 p.m.: When the officials return, they discover that there is still not more than one centimeter of ice. "I felt like I was present at my own funeral," says Alexander Kozlovsky, vice president of the Russian Olympic Committee.

--7 p.m.: Officials announce that the speed skating competition will begin in one hour four blocks away at a small ice hockey rink, the SKA Ice Palace. Spectators arriving at Yubileiny will be bused over. Speed skaters want to know: Couldn't they have made that decision yesterday?

--8:05 p.m.: One entrance into the building is open, sponsors' advertising banners are slung over the sideboards and Kelly's interpreter, David O'Hara, is helping put up pads. Kelly tells reporters that they should not blame the organizers for this glitch.

--9:40 p.m. Before a crowd of about 1,600 in the 2,400-seat arena, the competition finally begins with the men's 500. The United States' best hope, Andy Gabel, falls early. He says the confusion over the site was distracting and the ice is too soft for speed skaters.

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