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Winter Olympics: The Next Casualty of Climate Change?

Natural CO2 refrigeration systems were used in Beijing’s Olympic ice rink, decreasing the overall carbon footprint of the Olympic Games 2022. ©IOC
Natural CO2 refrigeration systems were used in Beijing’s Olympic ice rink, decreasing the overall carbon footprint of the Olympic Games 2022. ©IOC

Almost a century ago, the splendor of the Winter Olympics began in Chamonix, France. The archived footage from the first games shows athletes skating, skiing, and bobsleighing (bobsledding) through a picturesque, snowy landscape. Since then, the Winter Olympics has become a global tradition to show the best athleticism and character of individuals from around the world. Researchers warn, however, that by 2080 few cities will be able to host the games due to increasing global temperatures.

In fact, across all of the nineteen cities having hosted the Winter Olympics, February temperatures have increased by 4.8°F since 1950. Even in a low-emission scenario, by 2050 only nine of the 21 host cities will have reliable conditions in February to host the Winter Olympics. Winter is also now occurring in shorter intervals. From the 1950s to the 2000s, the winter season decreased by three days. If we do not deduct or maintain our emissions, the worst-case scenario could mean the winter season would last a mere twenty-seven days by 2100—certainly not a period long enough for training, preparations, and the facilitation of an Olympics event.

As the winters become warmer and shorter, host cities, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and athletes must take sustainability more seriously than ever in order to preserve the magic of the Winter Olympics.

Beijing’s Climate Solutions and Further Questions

Government officials in Beijing, China, are well-aware of the mounting pressure to make this year as green and clean as possible. For those who remember the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, viewers were astounded to see sunbathers and people in swimsuits rather than in parkas and scarves. This pattern of a less than ideal winter climate is expected to continue, and Beijing is no exception.

One such climate hurdle was that the host zones in Beijing are both cold and dry. For example, temperatures at one host zone went as low as 1.4°F (-17°C), yet the zone did not have any natural snowfall. To combat this, the Beijing Winter Olympics was the first to exclusively use artificial snow. Artificial snow is not new to the Winter Olympics; it was first used at Lake Placid in 1980 and has been used frequently since then. Researchers remain divided on its overall benefit for the athletes and its net sustainability. Some argue that it makes the ground harder due to it being mostly composed of ice, raising the concern of potential injuries.

Additionally, it requires an extensive use of local water supply from reservoirs and rivers. Others say that artificial snow is reliable and durable, making the games fair for all athletes to compete in the same environment. Optimistically, researchers are developing methods to make artificial snow more environmentally friendly.

"Researchers are developing methods to make artificial snow more environmentally friendly."

Fortunately, Beijing made significant improvements on its smog. In Beijing, air pollution from last year was down three-fifths from its worst year in 2013. Additionally, Beijing figured out several methods to keep to their sustainable promise such as using electric vehicles for transport; using natural CO2 refrigeration systems in most of Beijing’s Olympic ice venues, decreasing the overall carbon footprint; and it also repurposed construction, such as the Beijing National Stadium, the “Bird’s Nest,” which is great considering construction is notorious for being a heavy hitter of carbon. However, much of the country’s energy relies on coal, unlike places such as Ontario, which primarily has a hydropower grid. According to Reuters, China broke their record of over 380m tons of raw coal mining in December 2021.

When a coal grid is the sole provider of energy, it becomes elusive as to how net sustainable such efforts are. “When countries do their own monitoring, they're going to pick the best information to present themselves. That's no different for any country,” said Professor Daniel Scott, University Research Chair in Global Change and Tourism at the University of Waterloo. Instead, Prof. Scott suggested that frameworks be brought to a unified global stage, which is an undertaking the IOC has prepared for.

The IOC and Athletes’ Response

The IOC has made progress in its own sustainability initiatives. After recognizing its poor record of environmental impacts in the 1990s, sustainability was added as a third pillar of Olympism in 2014. Olympism is a “philosophy of life” which emphasizes the importance of not only sports, but also education, culture, and social responsibility. In 2018, the United Nations and various sports organizations created the Sports for Climate Action Framework. Participants of the framework set five principles with an overarching aim to not only lower sports-related GHG emissions, but to also make sports an industry that advocates climate literacy.

Olympic gold medalists highlight the dangers climate change brings to winter sports, as they urge Congress to take action. ©Citizens Climate Lobby
Olympic gold medalists highlight the dangers climate change brings to winter sports, as they urge Congress to take action. ©Citizens Climate Lobby

Athletes and coaches are also concerned about the future of the Winter Olympics. “Sports can be an important agent for change for many people. Athletes want to be a bigger part of the solution,” said former Canadian elite skier and current PhD student Natalie Knowles, in a press release by the University of Waterloo. Additionally, a survey conducted from November 2020 to August 2021 with over 300 responses from winter athletes and coaches showed that 94% of respondents fear climate change will impact their sports.

Notably, not all winter sports are equally affected. Sports such as hockey and ice-skating could very well be hosted in an arena in Florida. It is the snow sports that face a more troubling future if we remain on a high emission pathway lest we forget that the threat against snow sports does not only pertain to the Winter Olympics of today, but the Winter Olympics of tomorrow.

“The athletes and coaches’ real concern is not just the Olympics or competitions, but their local ski hills. If local ski hills close due to lack of snow, that's the pipeline to the next generation of athletes, and the athletes know that,” Prof. Scott remarked. If kids do not have access to snow sports, they may pick up others; this pattern leaves the future of snow sports in jeopardy.

Our Future Is Our Choice

Sporting organizations have a duty for their athletes, and future athletes, to fight for a low emission future. More urgently, Winter Paralympians are up next in March, with even larger hurdles to overcome as their games will be during an even less reliable month based on certain indicators. However, there are options to overcome these unequal conditions: the Winter Paralympics could merge with the February Winter Olympics, which would allow all athletes to compete under equal environmental conditions but also lead to heavy tourism for host cities. Alternatively, host cities could band together to share one single Olympic event. Another option is to alternate Olympics and Paralympics so both have the opportunity to compete in February.

At the end of the day, if the global community wants to keep the Winter Olympics, they will. But we’re left to postulate if the glowing freshness of snow cascading from mountaintops will be replaced with white ribbons of artificial snow against a dry mountain canvas. The choice is ours, Prof. Scott commented: “The outcome for the Winter Olympics is our choice. It's in our hands to choose the path for a low emission future.”


*Chelsea Noack is a science writer and editor based in Manhattan. She is passionate about climate change, ocean science, bioethics, technology, and the future of human health.


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