Salt Lake Venues Highest in Decades

Wednesday, February 6th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ The subject of altitude makes Olympic athletes and coaches shudder; these Winter Games will give them reason to sweat.

Salt Lake City features the highest Olympic venues winter athletes have faced in decades. The 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif., was the latest to even come close.

The U.S. women's hockey team, favored to bring home a gold, left its Lake Placid training site on Jan. 9 for a monthlong high-altitude training trip, with games in Colorado Springs, Denver and Steamboat Springs, Colo.

Its goal: to get ready for the Salt Lake City's 4,100 foot-high E Center and the 4,550-high Peaks Ice Arena.

``I noticed it just going up to my hotel room!'' Julie Sasner, assistant hockey coach for the U.S. women, said of the road trip. ``We all did. The girls felt their lungs were burning in Steamboat.''

Concerns about the altitude were reflected in the team's training, not in any coaching changes on the ice.

``We run our bench with short shifts at high intensity anyway,'' she said. ``We want everyone going at maximum capacity, then off. We have a lot of good players ready to roll.''

The U.S. biathlon team took a different approach. In the last two years, the eight team members and about a dozen hopefuls moved to Utah so they could adapt to the altitude gradually.

At 5,725 feet, the Soldier Hollow course is the highest world-class biathlon venue, U.S. biathlon team spokesman Jerry Kokesh said.

``Everything we have done is based on altitude training,'' Kokesh said. ``In an endurance sport, it is absolutely crucial.''

Dozens of other U.S. athletes moved to Utah, and other teams took notice. Kokesh said the Ukrainian biathlon team traveled to Utah to train for the last two summers and other European teams were training at higher altitude sites closer to home.

Dr. Mark Elstad, medical chief at the 5,000-foot-high Olympic Village, says athletes are just as likely as ordinary folks to face altitude problems.

``The incidence of acute mountain sickness has nothing to do with fitness,'' said Elstad, a University of Utah pulmonary specialist.

Elstad said the chances of any Olympic athlete having an acute reaction were rare, but noted that ``even mild altitude sickness could make a difference'' for elite athletes.

Symptoms of altitude illness include dizziness, fatigue, difficulty breathing or sleeping, nausea and even vomiting.

Elstad said mild symptoms often go unnoticed, and athletes might attribute a headache or slight queasiness caused by the altitude to nerves or a bad reaction to a meal.

The highest Olympic venue this year is the daunting 9,288-foot start of the men's downhill at Snowbasin. Experts say at 10,000 feet, nearly 75 percent of people will experience some kind of high-altitude sickness.

The thin air can be both a boon and a bane. It makes it hard for athletes to get enough oxygen into their lungs as they strive for peak performance, but it also reduces the resistance they face as they glide through the air.

At the Olympic level, even the slightest edge can mean new records _ and that is surely the hope at the Utah Olympic speedskating oval, at 4,675 feet the highest in the world.

Less oxygen in the air means the rink's water molecules are packed closer together, making for harder ice. And world records love hard ice.

``People talk about 10 events, 10 new records,'' said Nick Thometz, director of the Utah oval, referring to the total number of long-track speedskating events. ``We can create the environment, but the athletes have to perform.''