Freezing temperatures at Olympics complicates job for biathletes

Lowell Bailey
Lowell Bailey of the United States competes in the men's 10-kilometer biathlon sprint. –Andrew Medichini/AP

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — For Tim Burke and Lowell Bailey, these Winter Olympics are their fourth. And the coldest of the four, by far.

“Torino was warm. Really warm,’’ said Bailey, a US biathlete. “Vancouver was really warm and Sochi was really warm. So, yeah, the bar’s pretty low for that.’’

Temperatures here have been in the single digits and teens in the mornings and after sunset, and rise to the low 20s during the day. The cutoff for international competition is minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-20 Celsius), which Bailey said he and have teammates have experienced in World Cup competitions.


“That’s cold,’’ he said. “I think we’ve all been in the position where race day morning is minus-24 [Celsius], minus-25 [Celsius], and the high is minus-20 [Celsius] and race time comes along and the race goes because the temperature is just eked up enough to break that barrier and it’s tough.’’

Although the conditions are not entirely unfamiliar, it still demands extra thought in attire, especially in a sport that relies on shooters’ ability to feel their fingers and hands to efficiently load the rifle and pull the trigger.

“It’s very important to have feeling in your hands,’’ Burke said. “That’s something that can be extremely challenging in these conditions because we just can’t get away with wearing very thick gloves because you need to be able to feel the trigger, to be able to feel your clips as you load the rifle, so if you start to lose feeling in your hands, it makes it very challenging.’’

Burke, who said some of his coldest competitions have come in Finland and Siberia, has experienced being unable to feel the clip in his grip while he is loading the rifle.

“I’m just watching my hands to see them actually holding the clip,’’ he said. “In those situations, you just have to try and rely on muscle memory and realize that everyone’s probably also dealing with the same thing.’’


Susan Dunklee, a teammate of Bailey and Burke, said she will place hand warmers on her wrists to help heat up the blood circulating into her hands and fingers.

“It helps your hands stay a little bit warmer,’’ she said, before adding, “not much you can do.’’

All three said layering is extremely important, especially utilizing layers that have special wind protection in them. Dunklee will wear glove liners or an extra pair of long underwear.

“The colder it gets, the more layers you’re wearing,’’ Burke said.

In addition to the cold, the winds have been strong. For precision shooters, that forces sight adjustments, sometimes mid-race. Burke said the wind on the course here has been switching directions, which is something they usually do not have to accommodate; he said they are more accustomed to wind from one direction.

“The wind will have a big impact on the races, but so far from the conditions I’ve seen it’s doable, you can hit the targets,’’ Burke said. “But it will make it interesting.’’