“It’s just like football,” explains Rémy Boehler, the Frenchman charged with ensuring that the rink at the Gangneung Ice Arena is ‘pitch perfect’ for the figure skating competition at PyeongChang 2018. “If the grass is well prepared, you have a better chance of a high-quality match; if it isn’t it’s more difficult,” he adds.
You might think that the sub-zero temperatures in PyeongChang would make Boehler’s job easier. But it’s not that simple. In fact, outside air temperature is just one of the many variables that make ensuring optimal conditions on the rink an extremely complex and delicate operation.
“The ice is very sensitive to the surrounding environment: the air temperature, the humidity levels, the quality of the water,” explained Boehler ahead of the start of the figure skating programme, which got underway on 9 February with the team event.
“If it is very cold outside and the cold permeates the rink, it’s going to have an impact on the ice,” he adds.
Boelher arrived in the Republic of Korea ahead of the Games to begin fine-tuning the conditions at the venue. He is at pains to stress that, in order to ensure the surface of the rink is of the highest quality, preparations cannot be rushed. That said, thanks to him and his team, the rink at the Gangneung Ice Arena has now been ready for two weeks.
“The work is very technical and requires a high degree of precision, and it’s important not to over-water the ice,” adds the Frenchman, who compares himself to a gardener tending his roses. “The surface area of the rink is 1,800m2 – 60m x 30m – and the ice needs to be as smooth as possible throughout. We always try to keep the thickness of the ice between four and five centimetres, with a maximum of one centimetre deviation across the entire 1,800 m2, and that is fairly difficult to achieve.”
Six degrees in 10 minutes
The challenge for Boelher and his team of ‘ice technicians’ is to ensure that the world’s best skaters have a surface on which they can “go out and enjoy themselves and bring enjoyment”.
He compares his role to that of a football groundsman. "If the athletes are skating on good quality ice, they will perform better. It’s just like when you play football: if the pitch is good, you’re more likely to have a good match; if it’s not, it’s harder to play well.”
And if the first impressions of the USA’s Nathan Chen – one of the main contenders for men’s individual gold in PyeongChang – are anything to go by, then it’s a case of so far so good for Boelher.
“The ice is incredible,” said the American youngster after his first training session at the Gangneung Ice Arena on 7 February.
The next task for Boelher and his team is to keep the ice at the ideal temperature, which is between minus three and minus four degrees. This becomes more challenging when the venue, which holds 12,000 spectators, is full to capacity.
“Twelve thousand people generate a lot of heat,” he explains. “The temperature can go up six degrees in the space of 10 minutes, so we have to adjust the settings in order to ensure that the temperature of the surface ice remains constant throughout the competition.”
It is the latest interesting challenge for the French specialist, who back in 1992 in Albertville (FRA) had to adapt the competition surface at a single venue to accommodate two different disciplines – figure skating and short-track speed skating – each of which required the ice to be at different temperatures.