- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Hours before the start of any cross-country skiing or biathlon race at the Sochi Olympics, the wax cabins next to the courses are already a hive of activity.

It’s here, inside the barrack-like structures that look like they could belong at a construction site, that gold medals can be won or lost before the skiers even get to the starting line.

Finding the right wax setup is crucial to any skier’s success but it is a difficult science, and the top teams have more than a dozen technicians preparing up to 30 different pairs of skis before each race.

Different snow temperatures require different setups to get the right amount of glide and grip, and getting it wrong can ruin even a strong favorite’s chances. With about 500 different wax products to choose from, the combinations are endless, and getting it right requires years of experience.

“It can make or break a medal performance,” American cross-country skier Andrew Newell said in the run-up to the games. “That’s on the shoulders of a wax tech.”

Depending on snow conditions, the technicians will grind the skis in different ways if grip or glide is a priority, and then use heating irons to melt the wax on top of it. Running a finger along a freshly waxed ski can feel a bit like touching a warm sticky lollypop with grooves.

“It basically comes down to three things,” Newell said. “The flex of the ski, the grind of the ski, the kind of structure that’s pressed into the bottom of it, and then the wax.”

The whole process has been made trickier by the change in weather conditions in Sochi, with temperatures at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center rising significantly over the last few days compared to last week, when teams began their testing.

Before the races, teams have their staff test the skis on the course, and each skier could get a unique setup depending on his preferences. The best setups are guarded like state secrets, with many technicians speaking in code to each other over the radio so other teams can’t copy them.

“It’s very secretive. We have code words, just like in baseball,” Newell said. “They’ll be like, ‘No. 2 is running better than No. 5.’ Back in the wax room, there will be a sheet that has all the waxes that they’re using. So you’re not using the name of the wax over the radio for someone else to hear. You have to register your frequencies also so you can’t hack into another country’s frequency, which has happened in the past.”

All the top skiers know the importance of getting the right setup, and the winner of every race is usually quick to credit the wax technicians. The phrase “I had great skis” is almost mandatory at a winner’s news conference.

Norway’s Marit Bjoergen, who won the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon on Saturday for her fourth career gold, is the favorite in almost any race she enters but said her future success in Sochi also depends on her service staff.

“If I have (good skis) in every race, then anything is possible,” she said.

Newell said the U.S. team has about 10 people on their waxing staff, while the mighty Norwegian team has twice that number. Newell and star sprinter Kikkan Randall have the same technician, Peter Johansson of Sweden, who has worked with the U.S. team for eight years. Most skiers always use the same main technician, and the partnership develops an intuitive feel for what will work best for that particular athlete.

“(Johansson) lives in Sweden, my skis live over there in Sweden with him,” Newell said. “He takes care of them all summer long. He, like, has them in his garage, maybe sleeps with them at night, I’m not sure.”

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