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Climate change and the Olympics: “Winter” disappearing from Winter Games | Olympics

Climate change and the Olympics: “Winter” disappearing from Winter Games | Olympics

Manmade snow has been the main surface for winter sport competition as polar and alpine areas are experiencing rapid warming trends.

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Ski racers settling into the start gate for Alpine World Cup events in the Rocky Mountains in early December squinted through sunshine that carried the temperature toward 50 degrees and glanced down at a course covered with pristine — and manufactured — snow.

They could see the finish line and the hills beyond it.

It is a troubling reality and — given their own reliance on the production of snow, continent-hopping flights powered by diesel fuel and other environment-unfriendly offshoots of their careers — hard-to-reconcile push-and-pull for many of those who will be competing in Alpine skiing or freestyle skiing or snowboarding or Nordic combined events or other outdoor sports that helped put the disappearing “Winter” in Winter Games.

“Climate Change is here. It’s happening. It’s happening right now. It’s not something we’ll see in the distant future. It’s here. It’s evident with the fires in California and floods in Europe. It affects all aspects of life. It is having an effect on everyone around the globe. There’s no turning back,” Travis Ganong, a 33 year-old skier from California, said.

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He said, “Selfishly I hope winters will be here in the future.” “But it’s certainly not looking good.”

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

While skiing on man-made snow in Beaver Creek, Colorado, skiers look east towards the Rocky Mountains. 

Global warming is threatening his and other sports and it’s not just the elite. It affects people who want to ski or board for fun, as well as those who make a living out of such activities.

This affects everyone on the planet.

One example: Colorado set a record for the longest consecutive day without snowfall since 1880s. After only one inch of snowfall between Dec. 30 and December 30, Colorado saw warm temperatures that led to hundreds of home losses.

According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the last eight years are the hottest ever recorded for Earth.

“The glaciers have receded.” John Kucera (2009 world downhill champion) said that the winter is ending earlier than expected. He is now a coach for Canada’s Alpine Team. “For a sport as important as ours, it might be more costly than other sports. The climate and weather are key factors in what we can do.

The fallout is widespread.

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

FILE – Skiing fans view from bleachers during the World Cup Downhill Ski Racing on Dec. 4, 2021 in Beaver Creek (Colo.). As winters disappear, Olympic athletes in Alpine skiing, and other outdoor activities, are worried. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

FILE – Two workers clean stands near the halfpipe course in preparation for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Jan. 27, 2022 in Zhangjiakou (China). As winters are disappearing, Olympic athletes in Alpine skiing and other outdoor activities depend on snow are concerned. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

It’s harder to find glaciers suitable for training, so athletes need to search for new locales — or even head indoors. It is more difficult to hold World Cup events due to too much wind, too much snow, or too little snow leading to postponements and cancellations.

It is harder to find snow in real places, so machine-made snow is increasingly being used. This has its own negative effects on the environment. High speeds, steep inclines, and sharp angles make danger a constant presence on Alpine skiing. However, injury-causing accidents are becoming more common in Nordic skiing and biathlon due to the harder, slicker tracks created by humans.

“We have seen a decrease in snowfall everywhere. We’re seeing less snow in places that were once winter wonderlands. And they’re getting less snow some years,” Taylor Fletcher, a Colorado native, said. He is based out of Utah and has made his fourth Olympic team for Nordic combined.


Many Winter Olympians have similar observations.

Marta Bassino of Italy, last season’s World Cup giant-slalom champion, joked, “But I see the world with my eyes.”

Alexis Pinturault was a three-time Olympic gold medalist for France. He recalls hitting the slopes of Tignes in France’s Alps 20 year ago but says that it’s “almost impossible to ski there anymore.” Winter Vinecki, a U.S. aerials skier, recalls an event in Belarus, where she competed amid water puddles, instead of in a season-appropriate environment. Taylor Gold, an American snowboarder and part of Protect Our Winters (an athlete-driven environmental group), says that the ideal scenario is a halfpipe entirely made of natural snow. But that’s not possible any more.

A recent study in “Current Issues in Tourism,” showed that only one of 21 Winter Olympics sites would be able provide fair and safe conditions without a drastic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers from the United States, Canada, and Austria determined that only three of the 12 European cities that hosted Winter Games were reliable sites by 2050, despite their low emissions.

“Part of what papers like this do is to get a message out that there is a lot of influence… and so, we can act to avoid those worst-case scenarios,” said Daniel Scott (a professor at the University of Waterloo) who co-authored the study “Climate change, the future of Olympic Winter Games: athlete perspectives”.

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

A ski slope at Beijing’s National Alpine Ski Center is pictured on Jan. 28, 2022 from the Yanqing National Sliding Center. This was taken in the Yanqing District of Beijing. As winters disappear, Olympic athletes in Alpine skiing and other outdoor activities are concerned. 

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

Course workers prepare man-made snow for the start of the World Cup Super-G race on December 2, 2021. As winters disappear, Olympic skiers and other outdoor athletes are concerned. 

“People are going to have to hold their elected officials accountable,” Scott said, “because I pledge to lose weight every New Year’s Eve — and that doesn’t always pan out.”

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), future hosts will be contractually required to be climate friendly. Beijing Games are expected not to be affected by climate change. All venues are expected be powered entirely by renewable energy. Four of the four ice rinks in Beijing will use natural CO2 technology to cool.

Tom Johnston, a Wyoming rancher, oversees the shaping of manufactured snow into Beijing’s Alpine courses. Although they might be cold, they are not missing real flakes. He has his own concerns regarding both his pursuits: Prepping ski slopes and back home, producing alfalfa.

He deals with warmer-and-later-than-they-used-to-be winters in Colorado and Vermont that make staging World Cup races a challenge — and with drought conditions that affect his farm.

Johnston said that “there’s going to problems” and wondered if future Games dates might need to change. “But I think that sports is the last worry regarding climate change, compared with food.”

There are many efforts being made. Some on an individual basis. Some on a much larger scale.

The National Ski Areas Association — a trade group that represents more than 300 Alpine resorts in the U.S. — started a “Climate Challenge” a decade ago to push its 300-plus members to monitor and reduce their carbon footprint. 31 ski areas participated in the 2020-21 season.

Beijing Olympics Climate Change and Winter Sports

Mikaela Shiffrin, United States, competes in the slalom section of the women’s combined race at the alpine skiing World Championships in Cortina D’Ampezzo (Italy), February 15, 2021. 

Mikaela Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic champion, is aware of the burden that airline travel imposes on her due to the World Cup calendar. She is especially concerned when she thinks back to the stretch that carried female racers across three weeks in November and 2012.

Shiffrin, a Colorado native, said that she is worried about her sport’s future, but also about how much time they have left before it all catches up to them. “Sometimes I seriously consider giving up races because it’s one less plane trip to take. It would be a small contribution towards a very large problem.

Shiffrin and Maddie Mastro, an American snowboarder, have said they have reduced their consumption of meat because it is harmful to the planet. Vinecki is able to grow her own fruits and vegetables in her home’s aeroponic garden. Ganong, like Ryan Cochran-Siegle, a fellow American, and Vincent Kriechmayr (an Austrian who won two medals at the 2021 Alpine World Championships), prefers to ride a bicycle. Keely Cashman is a first-time U.S. Olympian at Alpine skiing. She limits the amount of new equipment she can purchase.

Some people think it’s too late.

“The reality is that the ship has gone, unfortunately,” says my opinion. We haven’t made necessary changes. We have kind of missed the window,” Bode Mills, who won six U.S. Olympic Alpine medals in 2002-14, said. “So we are faced with what is, which is a changing climate. Over my lifetime, and most certainly my children’s, we’ll see some really dramatic things go down.”

Miller is an investor in Alpine-X and the public face of the group. The group works to build indoor snowsports venues throughout the U.S.

For training in technical events, some ski racers use indoor areas in Europe. Could World Cup events become a reality? Remember: Figure skating and hockey were contested outdoors at the Olympics. It’s possible that other sports could move inside.

Another option: You could try looking for new race sites, or go to higher places in the mountains where it is colder and more likely that you will see real snow.

Ted Ligety, an American who won Olympic Alpine Golds in 2006 and 2014, stated that while indoor skiing is fine in New Jersey, it’s not the same as skiing outdoors in Austria. “There is no denying the beauty of the outdoors, the fresh air.”


Andrew Dampf, AP sports writer, in Modena (Italy), and Brittany Peterson from Associated Press, Copper Mountain (Colorado) contributed.

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