When confronted with the prospect of continuing the Nordic ski competitions at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics with temperatures well below zero, the Soviet medical representative is reported to have said, “Nordic skiing is not a tropical sport.”
In other words, there is no lower limit.
But somewhere between the extremes of opinion regarding cold weather competition there lies a safe compromise.
If the temperature is less than four degrees below zero Fahrenheit on the coldest point of the course, a competition should be cancelled or postponed. This lower limit for Nordic competition, set by the International Ski Federation, is based on the relative wind chill generated by the speed of a skier on the downhill sections of a Nordic course that can easily drop into the minus-40-50 degree Fahrenheit range. These cooling rates can increase the risk of frostbite and hypothermia in even the hardiest of skiers.
If racers were able to compete in heavy clothing, the risks would be minimized. But the advantages of a racing suit for speed outweigh the need for clothing in the opinion of most racers.
How is the temperature measured when the decision to race or cancel must be made? The thermometer measurement should be at the competition site and away from buildings and trees. A tree is a living organism and gives off heat. Although hanging a thermometer on a tree is convenient, it does not give an adequate temperature determination for competition.
The temperature should be measured at the coldest point on the course, which will usually be in the shade and in a valley. Although not specifically stated in the official cancellation policy, a wind chill reading of minus-40 degrees Fahrenheit should also be considered a reason to cancel a race.
The cancellation parameters were developed for competition and do not apply to practice situations where skiers can wear multiple layers combined with wind suits and boot covers allowing activity to much lower temperatures.
Although the suggested cutoff for practice is a temperature less than minus-20 or a wind chill less than minus-40, this is not an absolute requirement. Seasoned skiers and coaches who are properly dressed may be able to tolerate lower temperatures.
The wind chill factor may be negated by practicing in a densely wooded area or in the shadow of a building. The coach is responsible for the skiers and should make decisions based on the least prepared skier. It may be necessary at times to keep an inadequately prepared skier out of training even in temperatures well within the limits of the guidelines.
How does the cold weather guideline apply to Alpine ski racing and training?
The minus-40 cutoff is for races lasting longer than one minute. Most Alpine races at the high school level last in the 30-to-40 second range. It may fall on the shoulders of the meet director to require the racers to keep their warm-ups on for the races as the temperature drops to levels below minus-40 degrees.
It may be prudent and safest to cancel downhill ski races at the practice temperature cancellation levels of minus-20 degrees or wind chill of minus-40 degrees. At some point, the race officials and volunteers must also be considered and the competition should not be continued if they are at risk from the cold.
The spirit of the guidelines is to provide a safety standard for the competitors, not another hoop for coaches and race administrators. The minus-4 temperature cutoff for Nordic ski races is required by International Ski Federation races and used world wide.
A canceled or postponed race may save a skier from the pain and potential skin loss of severe frostbite and the inadequately dressed or injured competitor from hypothermia.