A senior adviser to the Sochi Olympics convened an emergency meeting late last week with top winter sports officials at the Park Inn hotel in the Alpine village here. A situation had grown dire. It was not security, attendance or doping that was the problem. It was salt.
Four months earlier, Hans Pieren, one of the world’s leading experts on salt and snow, had told Sochi officials that the Alpine skiing events required more than 19 tons of salt, a crucial ingredient for melting soft snow so it can refreeze into a hard surface. But the organizers did not listen, to their great regret. Now, with 10 days of competition remaining, many of the Games’ signature events were in jeopardy of being compromised, and even canceled.
Tim Gayda, a Canadian consultant who is a senior adviser to the Sochi organizers, called the meeting on Thursday night, according to some people who were there. He told the group that the strongest kind of salt, the large-grain variety, was simply not available in Russia. Mr. Gayda asked the group an urgent question: Does anyone know how we can get 25 tons of salt – tonight?
From there, a confidential international mission unspooled – a mountaintop “Ocean’s Eleven” – that just may have prevented a major Olympic embarrassment. This Sochi salt accord involved a Swiss salt salesman working late into the night; a rerouted airplane that may or may not have come from Bulgaria; an Olympian turned salt savant; and Russians powerful enough to clear months of customs bureaucracy overnight.
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It began with Mr. Pieren, 52, a ruddy Swiss skier who works as a senior race director for F.I.S., the international ski federation. He discusses the merits of different salt grains with the precision of a jeweler and often carries plastic sandwich bags with grains of salt – fine, medium and large.
Last September, Mr. Pieren made a final inspection of the Alpine skiing courses and told Sochi organizers that he needed 19 tons of salt for the Games: two tons of fine-grain salt, seven tons of medium and, most important, 10 tons of large-grain Himalayan-style salt. This was the heavy-duty salt that sinks deep into the snow, lasts longer and is most effective in warm weather.
But Sochi organizers did not listen. After spending more than $50 billion on the Games, they did not order the full amount of salt recommended, which would have cost perhaps a few thousand dollars.
Sochi had hardly any large salt crystals, less than a ton – nowhere near enough to harden expanses of soft snow, according to Mr. Pieren. And temperatures on the mountain were rising.
It was not just the Alpine skiing races that were in trouble. Mr. Pieren fielded frantic calls from colleagues across the mountain – at cross-country, the halfpipe, Nordic combined. All were in need of salt. Prominent athletes began to complain about the conditions.
When Mr. Gayda asked about arranging an emergency infusion of salt, Mr. Pieren knew where to turn. He called Schweizer Rheinsalinen, a 160-year-old company near Basel, Switzerland, that sits on the banks of the river (the Rhine) for which it is named.
Mr. Pieren said Olympic officials would buy 24 tons if it could be shipped immediately. At roughly $150 a ton, the bill would be more than $3,500.
Once Schweizer Rheinsalinen agreed to the sale, the international ski federation helped reroute a plane to Zurich.
When the plane landed in Sochi, Russian officials expedited the customs process, according to the Sochi organizing committee. “The importation of the salt was done with full cooperation of all of the relevant authorities who treated this as a priority,” the organization said in a statement.
After the salt passed a security check Friday, Olympic vehicles took the load straight to the mountain, and about 24 hours after the emergency salt meeting, workers stood on the mountain, sprinkling the soft snow with big-grained salt, fresh from Switzerland.