August 19, 2008

Congratulations to Rashid Ramzi who won gold in the men's 1500 metres, Bahrain's first ever Olympic medal.

It has been a nerve-racking ten days for weather in the various venues. Extreme efforts to cut down on pollution causes notwithstanding, Beijing still nestles in a mountainous bowl not unlike Los Angeles: and like Los Angeles, if a stagnant air pattern settles in place, so do all remaining pollutants. Rain, perhaps, can be held at bay during crucial moments by rockets bearing silver iodide and other experimental weather technologies, especially if a potential storm is not part of a greater weather system. It makes as good an explanation as any for why the threatening storm held off during the crucial four hours of an open-air opening ceremony.

Worse yet for the Hong Kong and Qingdao venues, this is the height of the western Pacific typhoon season, with a better than 20 percent chance that one or more of the six cities involved in the Olympics will be hit by gale weather or worse even if there is no typhoon already on the horizon: and there are several areas currently being watched. Most typhoons form in this region from May to November with the high season being August/September: the same as for the North Atlantic. The 2008 season seems to be a particularly active one and has begun unusually early, with Neoguri striking Guangdong province on April 19, the earliest Chinese landfall in modern meteorological records.

Thus far the Olympic organisers seem to have been extraordinarily lucky.

Clearing weather patterns and two widely separated days of rain have reduced the extremes of Beijing's notorious smog to a mere two days. Almost all long distance and triathlon races ended up under blue sky days in air very nearly as clean as Beijing ever sees, featuring temperatures and humidities that surprisingly often became far more runner-friendly than those in Athens. One road race and a few athletics events took place in pouring rain that postponed some of the BMX races, but that seems to have been the only disruption in an Olympics where many had feared the distance races would have to be postponed to lower-pollution days. Maybe four days so far have turned out hot and steamy, by far the norm in Beijing at this time of year, but here NBC's prime time request had an unexpected positive twist: finals would most often be run during the relative cool of the morning.

Qingdao had worse luck from the very first day of the sailing events, with quirky weather that began with a becalming that forced cancellation of the first Finn class medal race midway through the race. Although the relatively light Kammuri had swept through two days before the start of the Olympics, the calming was almost immediately followed by gale force winds from Tropical Depression 11W which caused very heavy seas. These extremes seem to have set the pattern ... but these are also linked to the winds that have swept Shanghai clean. Another potentially disrupting storm, Vongfong, turned off almost immediately to the north and then northeast, avoiding major land areas entirely.

A potentially more dangerous typhoon, Nuri (PAGASA name: Karen), has been rapidly intensifying in the past 24 hours to a current sustained windspeed of 140 kmh (85 mph), and now it seems to have the Philippines and Hong Kong dead in its sights. Depending on how close it ends up coming, the city and its entire transportation system and airport may completely shut down to brace for the typhoon, at very close to the same time as equestrian events are set to finish and visitors and (more difficult) the horses to leave. Although it is rare for a typhoon to hit Hong Kong dead on, current predictions suggest that the storm could strike Hong Kong a day or so after the equestrian events are complete. With luck and an opposing wind shear, it is probable that Nuri could also weaken as quickly as it intensified, especially after having crossed land. Such weakening is the usual pattern for typhoons that first encounter either the Philippines or Taiwan. ("Nuri" is the Malayan word for a blue crowned parroquet, a type of parrot.)

A major factor in events proceeding as smoothly as they have is in the apparent determination of the Olympic volunteers to try to compensate for the weather in every way possible, from careful cleaning up of the athletics area to towels and covers for their visitors' sensitive electronics to some emergency maintenance of the mountain bike track. The general contribution of these many volunteers cannot be overestimated. I have seen them in the background of so many events, seizing every possible opportunity to sweep down court floors, manning water stations, running messages, and generally going above and beyond to try to help make things run smoothly. This speaks of some very careful organisation in the background: but then, hasn't just this kind of organisation been the hallmark of these Olympic Games?

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