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In balmy Vancouver, weather a hot Olympics topic

Dump trucks deposit loads of snow at Cypress Mountain in Canada. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times / MCT)
Dump trucks deposit loads of snow at Cypress Mountain in Canada. (Mike Siegel / Seattle Times / MCT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Olympic organizers vowed to make the Vancouver Winter Games the greenest in history. Apparently, Mother Nature misunderstood their intent.

While a pair of monster blizzards continue to paralyze New York City and Washington, shutting down airports and the federal government, unseasonably warm weather has descended over this Pacific Coast city, forcing organizers to deliver hundreds of tons of snow and 1,000 bales of hay by helicopter and dump trucks to build up the snowboard and freestyle ski courses at the green-sloped Cypress Mountain.

Some of the snow was airlifted from as far as 150 miles away, and artificial snow that has been stockpiled since November also is being used. Underground refrigerated pipes keep the snow from melting.

On Wednesday, sea gulls swooped across Vancouver Harbor onto the lamp posts at Canada Place, and from that vantage point, they saw joggers in Windbreakers and shorts along the meandering waterfront walkways, Olympic visitors with umbrellas raised, and cherry blossoms and daffodils poking their colorful petals out prematurely.

Not a single snowflake could be found on the ground in Vancouver. Nobody bundled up in ski hats and scarves. But that shouldn't come as a complete shock. Vancouver, with an average February temperature of 44 degrees, is the warmest city ever to host a Winter Olympics. And the city is coming off the warmest January on record.

The first hint that this city is more Seattle than Denver is the umbrella vending machines at the airport.

BUSTLING DOWNTOWN

Across the harbor from the sleek downtown skyline, one can see the contrast between the snow-capped peaks of 7,000-foot Whistler Mountain, where the alpine events will be held, and the still-green slopes of 3,000-foot Cypress Mountain, which got a dusting of snow Wednesday — its first in weeks.

"When I got off the airplane it was like, 'What's this green grass doing here? This is the Winter Olympics,' " U.S. speedskater Trevor Marsicano told reporters.

Friendly locals and volunteers went out of their way to tell visitors that the Olympics will be great even if it doesn't snow in Vancouver. The region — with its dramatic sea-to-sky backdrop — is picture-perfect with or without the white stuff. Robson Square has been transformed into an Olympic party plaza and features a quaint skating rink — where Katarina Witt did an exhibition Tuesday — and a four-story zip line from one corner of the square to the other. Men in business suits and tourists in their national colors can be seen dangling from the 557-foot cable.

Across town on Granville Island, visitors were enjoying a colorful market and street entertainment. Those who want to convene with nature can stroll, run or cycle along the six-mile seawall of Stanley Park, named after the same man whose surname graces the NHL trophy. It is North America's largest urban park (yes, bigger than New York's Central Park) and features a half million cedar, fir and hemlock trees.

The park offers breathtaking views of English Bay and Burrard Inlet, where seaplanes take off and land all day. Although this Olympic host city won't look as white as others to TV viewers, the visitors will probably be more comfortable outdoors for the festivities.

The lack of snow forced the cancellation of practice sessions early in the week, but athletes were on Cypress on Tuesday and Wednesday. They didn't seem worried.

"This is an outdoor sport, so we are used to all sorts of variables," said U.S. freestyle skier Heather McPhie. "Honestly, the course is completely fine. It's a little icy, but it's good to go."

Canadian freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau said: "The conditions were really good Wednesday, compared to Tuesday. Tuesday was the worst mogul training in history. The snow was like little balls."

NO BACKUP

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said that the show will go on as planned. "There is no concern, and there is no Plan B," he said.

Peter Judge, CEO of the Canadian Freestyle Ski Association, added: "Come hell or rainwater, we'll be at Cypress."

It isn't the first time an Olympic host city is faced with spring-like weather. In Innsbruck, Austria, in 1964, the Army was forced to carve out 20,000 blocks of ice and transport them to the luge and bobsled tracks. They also delivered 1.4 million cubic feet of snow to the mountainside.

Tim Gayda, the vice president of the Vancouver organizing committee, said he was "100 percent confident" the events will go on at Cypress and there will be enough snow to get them through the Olympics. "Hopefully, winter will come back," he said. "It only takes a 24-hour period to blanket the mountain."

Freestyle skiing is scheduled to begin Saturday with Moguls.

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