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Sochi's Humidity Keeps Olympic Ice Makers Working Overtime

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In Sochi, balmy weather has bedeviled some snowboarders and skiers. The snow is sometimes, well, slush. But inside the Winter Olympics' arenas, the ice is universally praised, though it's taking some work to keep things cool.

It's not the heat, it's the humidity that's leading ice makers to work overtime at the games.

That's paid off, because athletes in Sochi have been gushing about the ice.

"I think all the athletes are in love with the ice," 19-year-old U.S. figure skater Jason Brown said of the stuff at the Iceberg Skating Palace. "It's soft and it's fast — all the things that a skater looks for."

Canadian curler Brad Jacobs seconded the thought. He waxed on about the ice maker at his arena, which is called the Ice Cube.

"My hat's off to him," Jacobs said. "He's doing a great job He's a great icemaker. I don't think there's anybody in the world that's better than him."

Over at the Adler Arena, where speedskating competition is underway, Dimitri Grigoriev is the ice meister.

"Not all ice is created equal, because they all have different purposes ... so they're created in different ways, there are different recipes," Grigoriev said. "Different secrets to making ice."

There's figure skating ice, which is softer. There's speedskating ice, where skaters need maximum glide. Curlers have to walk on their ice.

Grigoriev said one of the secrets to his great ice is that it's old. Crews laid it down about 15 months ago. With constant maintenance and resurfacing, they're able to make it more compact and cleaner, with fewer air bubbles. And he said they took extraordinary measures in making the ice.

"We had classical playing here, so that the ice crystalizes in the proper hard manner, not rock music, not silence," he said. "We actually have Vivaldi's Four Seasons playing during certain stages of preparation."

Grigoriev said research shows that his method works.

"I am serious about it, look it up!" he said, adding, "Noise creates vibration and during the freezing process of water, those vibrations influence the type of ice you get."

NPR's research library looked into the claim. They couldn't find reputable research to back it up, though it's a sort of folklore in a small part of the ice-making world.

Even with his magic recipe, Grigoriev said he's struggling with the heat in Sochi. Temperatures are often in the mid-50s.

"The thing we have to fight with in Sochi, being right next to the sea, is the humidity," he said. "That is a problem if you can call it that."

Humidity levels outside the rink have been hovering between 70 and 100 percent. The humidity inside the rink, by contrast, must be about 30 percent, give or take. There also must be different climate zones for the skaters and audience. So for Grigoriev, the most important part of ice making is actually the air system. And it takes constant supervision.

"No disrespect to my colleagues at other venues or their icemakers whatsoever, but it's different and it's not as difficult," Grigoriev said. "How flat it should be, how cold it should be. How dry it should be. It's by far much wider and deeper in scope [at the Adler Arena] than any other ice rink."

Given the multiple Olympic records that have been set at his rink, Grigoriev says the years of work have been worth it.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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