What Is the Future of the Winter Olympics?

The very act of attending the Winter Olympics is contributing to its demise.

1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley

Getty Images

The photo is of the Palisades Tahoe ski resort in California—the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics before the name was changed from Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. The Olympics are unlikely to be held there again: According to a 2014 study, led by Daniel Scott of the University of Waterloo, conditions there will soon be "marginal high risk" and more likely to be "non-reliable."

It's actually hard to figure out where to hold the Olympics. As Katherine Martinko, Treehugger senior editor, reported in her post about the Beijing Winter Olympics, they are being held entirely on artificial snow, requiring an estimated 49 million gallons of chemically treated water.

Martinko concluded:

"At a time when we're supposed to be striving to reduce our personal and collective carbon footprints in an effort to keep global warming below 1.5˚C, the Beijing Olympics' efforts to create an entire alpine ski region on the edge of the Gobi Desert seem far more irresponsible and pathetic than impressive or praiseworthy."
Climate suitability for winter games

Slippery Slopes Report

So where could the Olympics go that actually makes sense in the 21st century? A new report, Slippery Slopes, uses Scott's 2014 data and concludes that toward the end of the century, under a high-emissions scenario—not a bad bet considering the way things are going—there will only be six sites with reliable conditions. The authors conclude:

"With warmer temperatures forging an entrenched long-term pattern, winter athletes and the dedicated followers of snowsports around the world will continue to witness first-hand how the effects of snow deterioration can create a blizzard of disruption, danger, and environmental damage. The future of winter sports and the most cherished and prestigious competitions are at risk."

More recently, a new study led by Scott is even more depressing. It looked at various emission pathways in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports and concludes that if nations all meet the targets agreed to in the Paris Agreement, there may still be some choice. But under a high-emissions scenario, we are down to one: Sapporo, Japan.

 "Positively, under the low emission scenario that is aligned to a successful Paris Climate Agreement, the number of reliable hosts remains almost unchanged throughout the twenty-first century (nine in the 2050s, eight in the 2080s). The high emission pathway results in a very different outcome for the ability to reliably deliver fair and safe conditions for snow sports at OWG locations. By mid-century the number of reliable hosts declines to four (Lake Placid, Lillehammer, Oslo, and Sapporo) and by the end of the century only one location remains reliable (Sapporo)."

The recent study interviewed athletes, who risk serious injury in the Winter Olympics "as they race 160 km per hour down a steep slope, throw tomahawks in a superpipe or complete complex aerials 20 metres in the air." The athletes worry about thin snow, fog, narrow coverage, and rain. Athletes noted warm temperatures make the course "super slushy, the speed slows down, and you get a bunch on bomb holes in the landings which are unsafe!"

The ideal temperature is between 10 degrees Celsius below zero (14 degrees Fahrenheit) and 1 degree Celsius below zero (30 degrees Fahrenheit). Scott and his team conclude in the second study:

"The geography of the OWG in the future will change under all climate change scenarios; radically so if global emissions remain on the trajectory of the last two decades. The much more moderate impacts associated with low emission pathways consistent with the net-zero 2050 targets of the Paris Climate Agreement proffer yet another reason to support the rapid decarbonization of the global economy. Athletes and coaches expressed trepidation over the impact climate change will have on the future development of their sport. As one athlete emphasized, ‘Our sports are going to end unless there is serious change in the world'."
Ski Jumping in Sapporo
Turin Winter Olympic Games gold medalist Felix Gottwald of Austria.

Koichi Kamoshida / Getty Images

But there is another problem with the Olympics ending up in a place like Sapporo, Japan. Unlike ski jumper Felix Gottwald, almost everyone else flies in commercial airliners. One of the serious changes in the world required for a low-emission scenario is to stop doing that. In a study of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, fully 87% of the 277,677 tonnes of carbon dioxide produced came from delivering the athletes, media, and tourists to the site. Given that Canada and the U.S. are two of the biggest teams, it is likely that the Olympics in Sapporo would generate much higher emissions.

Scott and his team note that we need rapid decarbonization of the global economy. Flying in half a million people from all over the world is not exactly consistent with that. The very act of attending the Winter Olympics is contributing to their demise. Perhaps it is time to consider whether we should be doing this at all.

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