Originally created 08/08/03

Winds halt pre-Olympic rowing event



SCHINIAS, Greece -- A pre-Olympic rowing event was called off because of strong winds Thursday, another troubling sign for organizers trying to fine-tune preparations for next year's games.

The conditions disrupted the four-day World Junior Rowing Championships and heightened doubts about the decision to build the Olympic rowing center in Schinias, a coastal area 18 miles from Athens and known for sustained summer winds.

Organizers said they would meet at dawn Friday to decide if the rowing can resume. More than 500 athletes from 45 countries are taking part and some teams were counting on Thursday's heats to remain in the event.

On the first day of competition Wednesday, waves kicked up by wind swamped some boats and forced the U.S. and British eight-man teams to abandon their sinking crafts. Organizers had moved the start of races two hours earlier to 6:30 a.m. to try to avoid the winds that normally intensify during the day.

The rowing is the first of a series of important test events this month to assess Olympic venues and give experience to personnel.

"This is why we have test events," said Denis Oswald, president of the world rowing federation and the chief IOC overseer of the Athens Games.

Oswald noted that rowing officials will have more time to wait for acceptable conditions during the Olympics, when the rowing will last eight days from Aug. 15-22. Organizers also said wind speeds lessened considerably in the last two weeks of August.

Organizers tried to present the high winds as a fluke.

"We have statistics for the last 11 years that totals 339 August days," organizing committee executive Marton Simitsek said. "The statistics show that only on eight of these 339 days did we have similar conditions with what we're experiencing these last days."

Gusts hitting more than 32 mph churned waters on the 1.2-mile course, which was built near a popular Aegean Sea sailboarding site. Winds were forecast to reach more than 47 mph, or a strong gale, later Thursday.

Gusts ripped a large traffic sign from a new highway near the site, severely damaging a passing taxi. Police said no injuries were reported.

"When you have rollers like these and you see the little whitecaps every once in a while, my answer is (the wind is) too strong," said Anita DeFrantz, a former U.S. Olympic rower who is vice president of the federation and an IOC member.

Italian team manager Monica DeLuca wondered how Olympic organizers will cope with the winds. An initial proposal to plant wind-blocking trees was rejected because it could shield some lanes more than others.

"The venue is good but maybe the position is wrong," DeLuca said.

The venue also will host the canoe-kayak flatwater racing test event Aug. 15-17. Other test events scheduled this month include archery, equestrian eventing, beach volleyball, cycling and sailing.