By Tim Bird, February 2014
Thanks to Finnish expertise, the organisers of the Sochi Winter Olympics are confident they will have enough of the most essential element of winter sports.
Mikko Martikainen’s love affair with snow began when he was a small child growing up in the eastern Finnish town of Varkaus. This childhood obsession has matured to the extent that the success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, with its 50-billion-dollar price tag and potential TV audience of three billion, could depend on it.
As Sochi’s “snow-to guy” – their go-to guy for snow – Martikainen acts as consultant to the organisers for everything connected with the white stuff, continuing a tradition of Finnish expertise in this field.
Anyone departing from Helsinki Airport in the depths of the Finnish winter can confirm that Finns know a thing or two about how to deal with winter conditions. Finnish snow-how, acquired from extensive experience of cleaning runways, de-icing aircraft and generally keeping air traffic moving, is enviously sought throughout the world.
“I come at snow from different angles, so I think what I offer is unique,” says Martikainen. He explains that snow-making with machines at ski resorts and sports venues is a widespread practice, but the innovations offered through his company, Snow Secure, are both cost-effective and sustainable.
The Contingency Snow Master Plan commissioned for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics makes use of Martikainen’s snow storage system and forms the newest addition to his impressive portfolio of projects.
“I started alpine skiing when I was about seven,” he recalls. “I began to compete, and eventually became a ski instructor and then coach of the Finnish alpine ski team. At the beginning of 2000, I began to focus on the snow itself and looked at different innovations connected with it.”
Meanwhile, he accumulated a portfolio that ranged from snowmaking in Africa to igloo moulds in the USA, and from energy-saving snow production for Finnish indoor arenas to advising on development of a ski resort in the Indian Himalayas. His interest in the challenges of guaranteeing snow at major sports events gained extra relevance in 2010 during the infamous shortage of this most essential commodity during the Vancouver Winter Olympics.
“I looked at the problems in 2010 and contacted the general secretary of the International Ski Federation to say that maybe I could help with the next Winter Olympics. First I had to find Sochi on the map – I didn’t know anything about it. But I contacted the sports director, went to Moscow in May 2010 and made them an offer. That’s how I began work on a strategic plan to guarantee snow in Sochi.”
He got to work analysing the situation, a task made more challenging by the fact that weather stats for Sochi were available only for the previous 20 years. “I found out that it was a big mistake to assume, as many did, that skiing is difficult so close to the Black Sea and on the same latitude as the Pyrenees. The mountains in the Sochi area are massive and soon I was confident that the decision to hold the games there was a good one in terms of the location. But the weather can change fast and unpredictably sometimes – just as it can in Helsinki, for instance.”
Above an altitude of 1,400 metres the snow will always fall, he explains. The problematic areas are below that altitude. “There can be warmer, more humid winters at lower altitudes. The lowest venue is for the ski jumping and Nordic combined (cross country skiing and jumping) events.
“Our master plan had to guarantee snow even if we experienced the warmest winter for 100 years. It’s based on my storage system in which we collected and stored, using insulation techniques, 800,000 cubic metres of snow last winter. Of that amount, we still have 450,000 cubic metres remaining – that’s equivalent to a metre-square column of snow 450 kilometres high.”
With this kind of contingency in place, Martikainen is understandably relaxed about Sochi’s weather when interviewed just before the Olympics. “There has been some snowfall, although the temperature rose above zero Celsius [32 degrees Fahrenheit] for a while. More cold weather is forecast. But nobody knows what it will be like when the games begin.”
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