Utah Olympic Park scratches two big events because of refrigeration issues, but its reputation only gets cooler

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Korea team makes their first run in the BMW IBSF World Cup 4-Man Bobsleigh competition, Saturday, November 18, 2017. The World Cup event scheduled for next week at the Utah Olympic Park was moved to Lake Placid, N.Y., because of refrigeration issues with the track.

Park City • Utah Olympic Park’s sliding track started to show its age this autumn.

Two major sliding events scheduled to be held in the next two weeks on the 20-year-old track recently had to be postponed and moved. A faulty cooling pump — one of the original six installed with the track prior to the 2002 Olympics — caused the reshuffling of the openers for the luge Junior World Cup, originally scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the International Bobsled/Skeleton Federation World Cup, which was to take place Sunday through Dec. 1.

It’s the kind of black eye the Salt Lake City area doesn’t need as it pins its hopes on hosting its second Olympics in 2030 or 2034. Rather than a shiner, though, John Rosen, CEO of USA Bobsled/Skeleton, said the mishap cast the park and its management in a shining light.

“I don’t think it’s negatively impacted the reputation of Olympic Park,” Rosen said. “If anything, it enhanced it because the management of the park was very open and very transparent with the IBSF. They notified (the IBSF) of the problem at the earliest possible opportunity and gave the international federation a chance to effect a relatively smooth transition rather than if they had waited, tried to fix the problem on their own and failed in the end.”

By swallowing its pride and admitting there was a problem, the Utah Olympic Legacy Foundation, which manages the Utah Olympic Park, allowed event organizers to make the best of a bad situation. The IBSF Bobsled/Skeleton World Cup opener was relocated to Lake Placid, N.Y., and rescheduled for Dec. 2-8. Lake Placid will also host the second World Cup stop, on Dec. 9-15. The Junior World Cup for luge has been canceled, but the Youth A World Cup portion of the Park City event has been absorbed into a juniors race already on the schedule for Koenigsee, Germany, next month.

The shifts have come at some cost. Bobsleds already shipped to Park City had to be shipped again to Lake Placid. Athletes have had to alter their travel arrangements. Plus, the only North American stop for the young lugers evaporated: The four remaining Junior World Cup sites, plus the Youth Olympic Games and the world championships are all scheduled for Austria, Germany or Switzerland.

“It’s always beneficial to race at home due to the athletes familiarity with the course. We get so many runs in ]Park City] and [Lake Placid], and it shows in the overall team results when we race on these tracks,” USA Luge spokesman Sandy Caligiore wrote in an email. “Plus, we have a number of kids from Utah, so it’s always nice to have so many family and friends there supporting. But now we have to make due with these rescheduled races on other tracks.

“The silver lining comes in the fact that over a long career, athletes must master ‘away’ tracks and this will give us additional time on an iconic German course [Koenigssee] that they will see every year until they retire.”

Tracking down the problem

It is the first time in the Utah Olympic Park track’s history it has had to cancel a major event.

“It was a huge shock to us,” Jamie Kimball, the park’s general manager, said. “But as we did research, we found out it’s not commonplace, but it has happened at other tracks and in major events over the years.”

Rosen of USA Bobsled/Skeleton said an event on the World Cup circuit gets canceled about once every couple years. Some come as a result of equipment failure, others are taken over by winter storms.

Kimball said he and the Utah Olympic Park track operators have known for a couple years that a problem existed with the cooling of the middle of three sections of the nearly one-mile track. The concrete of the track is cooled and primed for ice when six pumps, spread over the three sections, push heat-extracting ammonia through a series of tubes. Over the summer, Kimball and his crew replaced many of the hundreds of valves that control the flow of ammonia and some piping, hoping that would fix the problem. When they flipped the switch on Oct. 13 in preparation for the winter sliding season, their computer told them all systems were go.

But they obviously weren’t, Kimball said.

“I started up ice making and it was there, just as strong or worse than it had been in the past,” he said. “So that really threw us for a loop and took us a week or so to kind of diagnose all the way back down to the plant that we were having issues with the pumps.”

The pumps are custom-made in Germany and it would take months to get replacements. A couple of spare pumps intended for the track at the Whistler Sliding Centre could be altered to work as a patch, but converting the amperage and measurements from a piece of equipment designed to work in Canada for use in the United States would also take considerable time.

The track might have been ready in time for this week’s races, but then again, it might not.

A committee from Utah Olympic Park brought the issue to the attention of the IBSF and the International Luge Federation at the end of October, more than a month before the start of the competitions.

It was that timing that mattered most to those involved, Rosen said.

“Because they communicated early, because they had a chance to make changes before things became extremely difficult, it was ultimately fairly neutral,” Rosen said.

Kimball said he should be able to start icing the track using the temporary pumps by the end of the week. Six new custom pumps, which also employ new technology, plus backups are on order. That means North American Cup and Para World Cup events scheduled for December and February, respectively, should not be affected, he said.

Plus, Kimball said he and his staff have learned from their mistakes. The international sliding community has as well.

“This was a really unfortunate event but not unprecedented one,” Rosen said. “The way they handled it, if anything, enhanced their reputation.”