Ski racers settled into the Alpine World Cup events in Rocky Mountains in early December. They looked up at the course covered with manufactured snow as the sun reflected off the mountains.
They looked up and over the course, beyond the finish line, and saw nearby hills that were brown and barren, with no trace of powder. This was the setting for the Beijing Olympics, which begin February 4.
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 now. It’s not something we’ll see in the distant future. It’s here. You can see it in California’s fires, Europe’s floods, Europe’s higher snow levels, shorter winters and longer summers, and droughts. It’s all over the place. It has an effect everywhere. Travis Ganong, 33, from California, said that there is no turning back. He was traveling to China with the U.S. Ski Team.
He said, “Selfishly, it’s my hope that winters will be here in the future.” “But it’s not looking great.” Global warming is changing and endangering his and other sports, not just at the elite level. It affects people who want to snowboard or ski for fun, as well as those who earn a living by offering 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 a quarter of an inch of snowfall in December, Colorado experienced warm temperatures.
According to NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US science agencies), the eight most recent years were the eight hottest ever recorded. “The glaciers are receding.” John Kucera (2009 world downhill champion) said that the winter is ending earlier and starting later. He is now a coach for Canada’s Alpine team.
“For a sport like ours we might pay for it sooner that others. We are dependent on the weather and climate, which dictates what we can do. The consequences of the fallout are widespread. It’s becoming harder to find suitable glaciers for training. Therefore, athletes will need to search for new locations or even go indoors. Because of the danger of too much wind, too much snow, or too little snow, it’s difficult to host World Cup events. It’s difficult to find snow anywhere so machine-made snow is increasingly being used. This has its own detrimental effects on the environment. Although danger is constant in Alpine skiing due to the high speeds, steep inclines, sharp angles, and dangerous terrain, injuries-causing crashes are more common in Nordic skiing or biathlon, where the snow created by humans produces harder, slicker tracks.
“We have definitely noticed a shortage of snow everywhere. We’re seeing less snow in places that were once winter wonderlands in December and November. And some years they’re not getting snow,” Taylor Fletcher, a Colorado native, said. He was based in Utah and made his fourth Olympic team for Nordic combined. Many Winter Olympians have similar observations.
Marta Bassino from Italy, last season’s World Cup giant-slalom winner, admitted that he was not a meteorologist. Three-time Olympic medalist for France Alexis Pinturault recalled hitting the slopes at Tignes 20 years ago. However, he noted that it’s ”nearly impossible to ski there anymore”. Winter Vinecki, a U.S. aerials skier, recalls a Belarus event where she competed in 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), explains that the ideal scenario would be a halfpipe entirely made of natural snow. But that’s not possible any more. According to a recent study published in Current Issues in Tourism, only one of the 21 Winter Olympics sites could provide safe and fair conditions for all competitors if global greenhouse gas emissions are drastically reduced.
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 2050s, despite their low emissions.
“Part of what we do papers such as this is to get the message across that we have a lot of influence… and so, (there is) hope of trying to avoid those worst-case scenario,” said Daniel Scott, a professor from the University of Waterloo, who co-authored the study titled “Climate change, the future of Olympic Winter Games: Athletes and coaches perspectives”. Scott said that people will have the responsibility to hold their elected officials accountable. He stated, “People are going to need to hold their elected representatives accountable because I promise to lose weight every new year’s Eve and that sometimes doesn’t work out.” The International Olympic Committee has stated that it will contractually require future hosts to be climate friendly. Beijing Games are expected to be climate neutral. All venues will be powered by renewable energy. Four ice rinks will use natural CO2 technology to cool, replacing the more harmful hydrofluorocarbons. Tom Johnston, a Wyoming rancher, is responsible for shaping manufactured snow into Beijing’s Alpine courses. Although the mountains are cold, they lack real flakes. He has his concerns about both his pursuits, prepping ski slopes, and producing alfalfa back home.
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 will be problems and wondered if the dates for future Games could need to change. “But I think sports is the last concern about climate change, in comparison to food. There are efforts being taken. Some at an individual level. Some on a much larger scale. The Climate Challenge was started by the National Ski Areas Association, which is a trade group representing more than 300 Alpine resorts across the U.S. It was established a decade back to encourage its 300 members to reduce their carbon footprint. 31 ski areas participated during the 2020-21 season.
Two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shifrin is concerned about the weight of airline travel required by the World Cup calendar, especially when she considers stretches such the one that took female racers from Finland through Vermont to Canada to Switzerland in three weeks in November/December.
Shiffrin, a Colorado native, said that he is worried about his sport’s future, but also about how much time he has before it all catches up to him. Sometimes I think about giving up races just to have one less plane ride. It would be a small contribution to an enormous problem. Shiffrin, Maddie Mastro, an American snowboarder and others have all said that they have cut back on meat consumption because the industry is harmful to the environment. Vinecki has an aeroponic garden where she grows her own fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Ganong rides a bicycle when possible and so does Ryan Cochran–Siegle and Vincent Kriechmayr. An Austrian, Ganong won two golds at 2021 Alpine world championships. Keely, a U.S. Olympian in Alpine Skiing, limits the amount of racing equipment she receives.
Some say it’s too late.
“The reality is that the ship has gone, unfortunately,” I believe. We haven’t made necessary changes. We have kind of missed it,” Bode Miller said. He won six U.S.-record Olympic Alpine medals, from 2002-14. “So we have to face what is, and that’s the changing climate. Over my lifetime, and most importantly, my children’s, we’re going see some really dramatic things go down. Miller is an investor and public face of Alpine-X, which works to create indoor snow sports venues in the United States. For training in technical events, some ski racers use indoor spaces in Europe. Could World Cup events become a reality? Don’t forget that figure skating and hockey were once contested outdoors at Olympics. Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched for other sports to move inside. Another option: Moving to higher elevations in the mountains could offer better opportunities for real snow and new race sites. Ted Ligety, an American who won Olympic Alpine Golds in 2006 and 2014, stated that while indoor skiing is acceptable in New Jersey, it’s not the same as skiing at the tops of mountains in Austria or Utah. “There is no substitute for the outdoors beauty, the fresh air.”
(This story is not edited by Devdiscourse staff.