Fierce and howling winds at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have led to safety concerns and thrown the alpine skiing schedule into disarray. The gusts, which reached up to 50 miles per hour, led the local government to issue emergency alerts on the Korean mobile phone network warning of fire dangers and flying debris — and asking people to secure any outdoor equipment or furniture.
The strong winds meant that once again, U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin's first medal race in South Korea would be put off.
Shiffrin, a favorite in the slalom — she won gold in that event in 2014 — is now slated to race that event on Friday. Her giant slalom race had already been moved to Thursday because of bad weather.
As winds hurled snow and debris around on Wednesday afternoon, the sky sometimes looked as if a turbulent (and very dusty) storm cloud had descended upon the earth. Officials sent notice that all activities at Gangneung's Olympic Park were suspended "to ensure the safety of all personnel."
"Spectators are being encouraged to stay indoors and general admission to the park has been suspended for the remainder of the day," Pyeongchang organizers said early Wednesday afternoon local time (South Korea is 14 hours ahead of U.S. ET).
"I've spent a lot of today walking backwards," said British Olympics visitor Elliott Edmonson. The wind gusts have been strong enough to push people around; by evening, metal detectors outside venues and all signage were laid down on the ground, to prevent them from being picked up by the gusts.
At Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium – a relatively low-lying area near the mountains where alpine and other events are held – the winds were sustaining 22 mph Wednesday afternoon, with higher gusts.
After a fairly mild start to the day in Gangneung, the wind blew apart a temporary tent and toppled a security scanner. A moveable fence was also knocked over – and all of those descriptions apply to just one block.
Emergency alerts buzzed through cellphones several times in Pyeongchang and Gangneung on Wednesday, echoing around offices and restaurants. Citing safety concerns, organizers closed temporary media centers – large white tents where thousands of journalists work at Olympic venues during the games.
Shiffrin is now slated to race in the giant slalom on Thursday morning in Korea (that's Wednesday night in the U.S.), with the first run scheduled for 10 a.m. (8 p.m. ET Wednesday). Slalom's second run is set for 1:45 p.m. local time (11:45 p.m. ET Wednesday).
The women's slalom will be held on Friday in Korea and Thursday night in the U.S. In that race, in which Shiffrin will try to repeat her gold medal win in Sochi, the first run is set for 10 a.m. (8 p.m. ET Thursday), with the second run at 1:15 p.m. (11:15 p.m. ET Thursday).
Alpine events have now been delayed three times this week due to weather; the women's 15 km biathlon event was also postponed today.
The conditions have cause both concern and debate — particularly after the International Ski Federation put off some skiing events, but not the women's snowboard slopestyle, which saw dozens of riders fall on their runs two days ago. Rather than being postponed, that event was run after a delay.
Athletes who have competed in these conditions have made their displeasure known, since the wind can have such measurable effects on both safety and performance.
"I'm just pretty disappointed with the organizers to make us ride in these conditions," Canadian snowboarder Spencer O'Brien told CBC Sports. "When our safety [is] involved, the riders need to have a say."
"We do a really dangerous sport and this was really not a showcase of what these women can do," she added.
After the women's slalom was postponed Wednesday, Shiffrin issued a statement through the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team:
"It is unfortunate that we weren't able to race today, but it is important we have a fair race for all of the athletes and today's conditions would definitely not have been fair. Weather delays and postponements are just the nature of an outdoor sport, but we'll continue to take it day by day and I look forward to getting in the start gate!"
In the men's alpine events, the downhill will be run at 11:30 a.m. Thursday local time (9:30 p.m. ET), and the super-G will start on Friday at 11 a.m. (9 p.m.ET Thursday).
The U.S. team lost one of its downhill racers to a training injury Wednesday. Skier Tommy Biesemeyer of Keene, N.Y., hurt his right ankle and will be replaced by Ryan Cochran-Siegle of Starksboro, Vt., team officials said. Biesemeyer was taken to a medical clinic where he was treated and released.
Of the weather delays, Paul Kristofic, the women's head alpine coach, said: "Everyone is a little bummed out when a day like this happens, but they do happen, so we're quite used to it."
Kristofic added, "We've been through days like this before, in World Cup, quite often and the number one thing is safety and the second thing is to have a good, fair race. So neither of those were achievable today."