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Kearns oval -- truly Olympian
Huge structure's roof will be held up by 12 suspension cables

KEARNS -- Think bridges.

The Golden Gate, the Brooklyn, the George Washington, the Verrazano-Narrows -- any of those will do.As designed, the roof of the under-construction Oquirrh Park Oval -- which will be used for long-track speed-skating events in the 2002 Winter Games -- will be held up by 12 suspension cables anchored on each side of the 310-foot span by massive steel girders, like a suspension bridge.

"It's very similar in concept to a suspension bridge," said Rob Cottle of Gillies Stransky Brems Smith, architects for the project.

Thanks to the suspended roof, the entire 275,000-square-foot building will be free of support columns.

What's more, "not only is it visually interesting, it also is the most economical of all the systems we studied," Cottle said. "Even though it looks very complex, there's a lot of simplicity to it."

The suspension cables will be anchored in the ground with steel piles buried a whopping 80 feet deep. "That cable's trying to pull out of the ground, and the pile is acting as a giant tent stake, if you will," Cottle said.

Currently, construction workers working on the oval are doing a lot of fooling around in the mud, putting in foundations, building ancillary administrative facilities and the like. They will start the actual above-ground enclosure next spring.

The oval is located next to the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center. From 1996 until earlier this year there was an outdoor ice oval on the site, which was dismantled in the process of building an enclosed oval.

The Salt Lake Organizing Committee is supervising construction on the $25 million facility. Construction began last spring and is scheduled for completion next fall.

There are all kinds of interesting things about the building.

For one, it's costing a fraction of the cost of Nagano's long-track speed-skating venue, the M-Wave. That huge, elaborate, gloriously overdone building cost almost $300 million.

"Reality says it's excessive," said Cathy Priestner-Allinger, SLOC director of ice sports. "This is not the standard that Salt Lake necessarily has to meet."

"It was a very big building," said Nick Thometz, SLOC's long-track speed-skating project manager, of the M-Wave. "It wasn't very intimate for athletes and spectators. . . . We've tried to minimize internal space, No. 1, because it's better, and No. 2, because it's cheaper.

"You get some pretty hefty utility bills in this type of facility."

Indeed. The ice has to be frozen between 18 and 22 degrees, depending on the event (softer for shorter events, so racers can bite into the ice, harder for longer events, so racers can glide faster). At the same time, the building has to be warm enough to keep spectators' backsides from freezing to the bleachers.

Nagano's roof was 100 feet high. Calgary's oval, which was used in its Olympic Games and which cost $40 million in the mid-1980s, is 80 feet high. The one at Kearns will be 55 feet high.

Part of the space savings is due to the suspended roof, which can use girders only 3 feet deep. An unassisted roof of that size would use girders 18 to 25 feet deep.

The foundation of the oval itself is a lot more complicated than dumping down a bunch of concrete and putting ice on top. The foundation will be almost 2 feet thick, with various layers of sand, insulation and concrete.

The 7-inch-thick topmost concrete layer will be honeycombed with cooling tubes 4 inches apart, as well as with steel reinforcement bars, and it has to be perfectly smooth and consistent for uniform texture and heating of the overlying ice.

"You have to get all the elements into the slab and still get the concrete in there with no air pockets," Cottle said.

What's more, there can be no joints, meaning the entire 400-meter slab has to be poured in one giant pour that will take eight to 10 hours.

"There's a lot of effort going into making that slab the best it can be, and you only have one shot at it," Cottle said.

You might think that a facility that is built so inexpensively (in relative terms, of course), wouldn't be all that great. Au contraire. By all accounts, the Oquirrh Park Oval has the potential of housing the fastest speed-skating ice in the world.

That's not due to how the ice is frozen, of course -- refrigerating systems worldwide operate on the principle of cooling a water-based brine below freezing and circulating it through cooling tubes under the ice. But Utah has advantages found nowhere else in the speed-skating world, namely, high altitude and low humidity, the same things that give Utah the Greatest Snow on Earth.

The Greatest Ice on Earth? Could be.

The low humidity makes for good ice-freezing conditions, and the high altitude makes for thin air, providing less resistance for skaters.

"It's not so high that it's killer, though," Thometz said, referring to the fact that thinner air equals less oxygen to feed lungs burning in the final stages of a 1,500-meter race.

When not used for the Games, the oval will be used for local, national and international speed-skating events such as World Cup competitions, and by the public. It will not include any substantial spectator seating except during events, when up to 6,500 seats will be installed.

An estimated 200,000 people under 30 years of age live within five minutes of the oval.

So you're thinking, yeah, a skating rink, big deal. How hard is a skating rink to build?

Well, there are skating rinks, then there are 400-meter long-track skating ovals. Those babies are big.

Here's an idea of how big the Oquirrh Park Oval will be: The interior of the building will enclose more than six acres. Two full-size hockey rinks, now being built, will fit neatly inside the oval's interior with plenty of room left over for staircases and walkways. The oval itself will comfortably accommodate more than 2,000 recreational skaters -- at once.

"People won't really know what this facility is going to be like," Thometz said, "until they come inside and go, 'Whoa!' "