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Winter Olympians find themselves in a climate change “conundrum”

Winter Olympians find themselves in a climate change “conundrum”

YANQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 06:  A view of the finish line following the postponement of the Men's Downhill due to high winds on day two of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 06, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

BEIJING — Thousands of Winter Olympians spend chunks of every year traversing some of the most picturesque places on earth. They travel from North American ski resorts and Nordic utopias to Europe’s Alps. They enjoy the heavenly sunsets and lily-white powder. They look around and cherish mountainside views and, increasingly, they also worry — because they see climate change gnawing away at all of it.

They see the glaciers melting.

Ice chunks tumbling.

“It sounds like avalanches every day,” American snowboarder Keith Gabel said. “You’ll just see snow waterfalls coming down the cliffs.”

They are aware that their seasons are becoming shorter and half-pipes are becoming harder to find. They are worried about the future of their sport because they see natural racecourses becoming slush.

“It just won’t freeze for a week,” U.S. biathlete Sean Doherty said. “And it’s just kind of chaos.”

Some Olympians gathered in Switzerland for preseason training this past fall, and it was, U.S. snowboarder Jamie Anderson said, “a pure physical testimony to how gnarly climate change is. … You can just see the declining glaciers. … It is so terrible.

“But, I mean, I’m still here snowboarding,” she continued. “I know I’m just as much a part of the problem as the solution.”

She and others know that flying across Europe and requiring snowman construction, which are two of many activities that can harm the environment, contributes to the same crisis that threatens their sports.

“It’s tough for the competitors to race in,” Doherty said. “But it’s also tough because our racing circuit itself is pretty high-impact on the problem contributing to the fact that we’re skiing in slush. Which is kind of a conundrum.”

It’s the Winter Olympian’s conundrum. It’s microcosmic of humanity’s conundrum. The planet’s health is at stake when joy and life expectancy clash with one another. The Olympians love certain things. They know that their love for these things could prevent future generations from falling in love with them. What are they supposed do?

It’s a conundrum many have grappled with, even as they prepared for the biggest moments of their lives, the . They have also found tasty solutions, much like the rest.

“Our slopes melt”

Just about every Winter Olympian or Paralympian who competes outside sees tangible evidence that the planet is warming.

“Up on the glacier,” said Alex Hall, a U.S. freestyle skier, “you can tell a huge difference with what it looks like now compared to even five years ago.”

“It’s pretty scary to see it all happen,” said Red Gerard, the 2018 slopestyle snowboarding Olympic champ. “It’s definitely kind of a trip to watch climate change do its thing.”

“Our slopes,” Paralympic skier Thomas Walsh said, “are melting.”

It is clear to many of them, as U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin said, that “climate change is real, and it’s here, and it is 100% affecting our sport.” And even if they don’t believe it’s an existential threat, they believe it’s a threat to those sports.

They don’t worry about World Cup circuits or international events. They are more concerned about the smaller venues that feed the Olympic pipeline and those without the resources. Create snow, the ones who rely on the natural stuff that falls from the sky, and who’ve had to when it doesn’t.

“The venues that we race at can make snow happen, can make the race happen, for the elite athletes,” said Susan Dunklee, a U.S. biathlete. “But my concern is for, as a snow lover, wanting to see snow in places where a general recreational skier has been able to ski. I don’t want them to lose snow access. And that’s a major issue with climate change.”

The problem is often not obvious but it is evidently growing. A projected that the western U.S. will face persistent “low-to-no snow” predicaments in 35-60 years “if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.” Some ski resorts in the region are already feeling the effects.

“Recognizing those challenges,” said U.S. alpine skier Ryan Cochran-Siegle, “is key in order to keep our sport alive.”

YANQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 06:  A view of the finish line following the postponement of the Men's Downhill due to high winds on day two of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 06, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

100 percent man-made snow is required for the slope at Yanqing, China. (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Fake snow requires fake snow

The issue is that, in the immediate future, greenhouse gases also keep sport alive. Cochran-Siegle, and others mentioned in this story, competed at PyeongChang Olympics. This event had an estimated carbon footprint that was 1.6 million metric tonnes. The Games were responsible for more carbon emissions than many entire countries produce in a year.

Beijing organizers revised their footprint estimate to 1.3 Million metric tons CO2e. They also stated that they will offset all emissions through sponsoring compensatory initiatives. The International Olympic Committee claims that it is carbon neutral. . It has already . However, this event consumes an enormous amount of natural resources.

Man-made snow is a popular source of consumption, especially in the context of the 2022 Olympics.

Beijing was not chosen to host the Games due to its lack of snowfall. IOC officials warned in a 2015 bid evaluation report that “the Games would rely completely on artificial snow” if held in and around the Chinese capital. It was approved by members anyway. The costs will be borne by the planet and its people. To build icy slopes on otherwise dry mountains, organizers will need to use at least 49 million gallons of liquid water. “Snow cannons” will shoot water droplets into the air; freezing temperatures and chemicals will turn them into ice. Experts say the process will exacerbate “water stress” in the region, and interrupt its natural ecosystem. It also requires significant nonrenewable energy.

It becomes part of a positive feedback cycle. Fake snow contributes towards climate change. There’s no obvious way to break the cycle.

Other aspects of winter sports include These have attracted the attention of both environmental policy makers as well as sports federations. But . 60 to 80% of emissions can be caused by transporting officials, athletes, and fans to and fro competitions via carbon-intensive planes and vehicles. The Olympics, which bring hundreds of thousand of people from all over the globe to a country, is no exception.

Some travel is inevitable. Participating in an international sport can cause damage. Some Olympians have found ecofriendly ways to compensate for this.

Doing their part

Susan Dunklee came home from the Biathlon world championships with a medal in her pocket and money in her bank account. She realized she could use the money to help the planet. She paid for solar panels to be installed at her home.

“And it’s been a wonderful, wonderful thing,” she said. “It’s really cool to produce your own energy.”

Recenty, she traded her car in for an electric vehicle, another step towards her goal.

In earth’s grand scheme, it’s a small part. One electric car, or one sporting event, or even 49 million gallons of water turned to fake snow aren’t alone going to determine the planet’s long-term well-being. This is the larger climate dilemma. No single person’s actions make a material difference. However, they can make a huge difference if they work together.

“So,” said Gabel, the snowboarder, “we gotta take things seriously and make small changes. It all adds up.”

The Winter Olympians’ solutions have been threefold. They strive to live green at home. They recycle, and they abstain single-use plastics. They also support companies who do the exact same. They recognize that governments have the power to tackle climate change on a large scale. Therefore, they support organizations such as , a non-profit “advancing non-partisan policies that protect our world today and for future generations.”

They do this. They speak. Their platforms, most experts agree, are an athlete’s biggest tool in the fight for the planet. “That’s the power of sport,” said Roger McClendon, executive director of the . “It’s not what it can do within the industry alone, it’s what it can influence. It’s the influence that is the biggest horsepower of change.”

“And it’s encouraging to hear people have interest in it,” said U.S. skier Gus Schumacher. “To have a dialogue around the Winter Olympics about climate change, I think, is as important as our individual efforts to limit travel, and try to avoid plastic, and stuff like that.

“I think it’s really important to focus on as we go,” he concluded, “because otherwise, we’re not gonna have a Winter Olympics in not that long.”

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