YANQING, China — Natural snow finally fell on the National Alpine Ski Center here on the 11th day of Olympic activity — and became a problem for snow sports that have grown accustomed to operating on artificial surfaces.
Organizers canceled Sunday’s women’s downhill training run and delayed the men’s giant slalom competition “due to the snowfall.
Up in Zhangjiakou, at the Genting Snow Park, women’s slopestyle skiing qualifiers were initially delayed, then postponed to Monday “due to heavy snow and poor visibility.”
Precipitation began late Saturday night and continued into Sunday evening. Several inches of snow had coated roads, mountainsides and racecourses in Yanqing by the time Sunday’s competitions got underway, and visibility was extremely limited.
“I didn’t see sh*te,” Norwegian skier Henrik Kristoffersen said with a laugh after his first giant slalom run.
Cold temperatures also affected some sports. Temperatures hovered just above 0 degrees Fahrenheit on Xiaohaituo Mountain, the site of the Alpine skiing competition, with a wind chill of -9 degrees.
Organizers decided a little before 8 a.m. to call off downhill training, but went ahead with the giant slalom competition as planned at 10:15 a.m. local time. After 33 racers did not finish their first runs, organizers decided to delay the second run, originally scheduled to start at 1:45 p.m., to 3 o’clock (2 a.m. ET).
“I really couldn’t see anything, the snow is coming down hard,” France’s Alexis Pinturault said after his first run. “In addition, there aren’t any trees at the edge of the course, so you can’t see any landmarks.”
His French teammate Mathieu Faivre added: “It’s really tricky to know where you are on the course. There were moments where I didn’t really know where I was, or where I was going.”
U.S. skier Tommy Ford, when asked how he could see, said, “Ah, I couldn’t.”
“I was not able to see the snow,” he continued. “You can see gates, but looking at gates doesn’t help your line. So I was just kinda using the Jedi tricks.”
Until now, these Olympics have relied entirely on artificial snow for outdoor events, in part because Yanqing — a district on the outskirts of Beijing — and Zhangjiakou — a mountainous town in a neighboring province — receive very little natural snowfall. Both sit on the outskirts of the Gobi Desert.
Yanqing received none last year, and only one dusting earlier this season.
The reliance on man-made snow attracted attention and concern from environmental groups. In reality, though, it has become the norm for international ski and snowboard competitions. Some Winter Olympians actually prefer it.
“We have been riding on a lot of artificial snow halfpipes for so long now, we’ve gotten used to it,” U.S. snowboarder Maddie Mastro said in October.
The giant slalom second runs began at 3 and continued uninterrupted. But several contenders were unable to finish, and others appeared to be slowed by the worsening weather.
Snow was still falling steadily in both Yanqing and Zhangjiakou as of 4 p.m. local time, and could continue throughout the evening. Volunteers in Yanqing, reveling in the novelty of it, packed snowballs and horsed around in fluffy white piles of it. One staffer at the Yanqing Sliding Center was blown away by how much had fallen.
“It never snows here,” she said.
Yahoo senior writer Jay Busbee contributed to this report.