Marc Norman is standing ice-side in the new skating rink in Salt Lake City, Utah-the site of this year's Winter Olympics. It's noisy in here: Workers are installing a high-tech dehumidifying system. Speaking over the persistent clanging, Norman makes a prediction. "Once that's completed," he says, "we will be able to control just about everything that happens in this building."
That boast makes Norman, the rink's building operations manager, sound like nothing less than an insufferable control freak. But one can forgive him his obsessiveness, given that the 2002 Winter Olympics are fast approaching-they run from Feb. 8 to Feb. 24-and along with them the deadline for his ambitious goal: making the fastest ice on earth.
If Norman succeeds, some pros predict that world records will be broken during this year's Winter Games in all 10 speed-skating events-the 500-, 1,000-, 1,500-, and 5,000-meter races for both men and women, as well as the women's 3,000-meter and the men's 10,000-meter races. In the 18 Winter Olympics that have taken place since the games originated in 1924 in Chamonix, France, such a thing has never happened.
An ex-skater who was good enough to have twice tried out for-but not made-the Olympic team, Norman, 28, has worked in rink maintenance for about a decade and came to the Utah Olympic Oval roughly two years ago. Over the years he's become a sort of ice guru-a Frankenstein of Freeze, if you will-bent on breathing zippy new life into what most of us consider to be one of the most mundane of materials.
The new rink Norman helped design in Salt Lake City is a $30 million temple devoted to fast ice. Nothing has been left to chance: From the height of the ceiling to the sophisticated equipment that monitors subtle shifts in temperature and humidity, the building is a marvel of environmental control.
The temperature of the Salt Lake City ice is calibrated to within hundredths of a degree, thanks in part to 1,000 tons of chilled calcium chloride solution (that is, saltwater) that circulates continuously throughout the 33-mile network of polyurethane pipes beneath the ice. The pipes, which are 11/2 inches in diameter, are set just 4 inches apart. Because saltwater freezes at a lower temperature than freshwater, Norman can chill it down to -8