Olympians worried about disappearance of ‘winter’ from Winter Games
Ski racers settling into the starting grid for the Alpine World Cup races in the Rockies in early December squinted through the sun which was bringing the temperature towards 50 degrees and took a look at a course covered with immaculate and manufactured snow.
If they looked up and crossed the path, beyond the finish line, they saw adjacent hills which were brown and barren as can be, with no trace of powder or any indication that it was a frame for athletes heading to the Beijing Olympics which begin on February 4.
It’s a disturbing reality and – given their own reliance on snowmaking, diesel-powered continent-to-continent flights, and other disrespectful ramifications of their careers environment – it is difficult to reconcile the back and forth for many of those who will compete in alpine skiing, freestyle skiing, snowboarding, Nordic combined or other outdoor sports which have contributed to eradicating the “winter” of the Winter Games.
“Climate change is here. It’s happening. We’re living in it right now. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the distant future. It’s here. And you see it with the fires in California, floods in Europe, higher snow levels, shorter winters, longer summers, droughts. This runs the gamut. All over the world, this is having an effect. And there is not really looking back,” said Travis Ganong, a 33-year-old Californian who travels to China with the US Ski Team.
“I selfishly hope winters will be here in the future,” he said. “But it’s not looking good.”
Global warming is altering and endangering his sport and others, perhaps permanently, and not just at the elite level. This affects people who just want to ski or snowboard for fun and those who live in places that offer such activities.
And, well, everyone on the planet, of course, because it affects so much more than sports, of course.
Just one example: In December, Colorado set a record since the 1880s for most consecutive days without snow. After warm temperatures and just an inch of snow as of Dec. 30, wind-fuelled wildfires have destroyed hundreds of homes in the state.
The past eight years are the eight hottest on record for Earth, according to two US science agencies, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The glaciers are retreating. Winter starts later and ends earlier,” said John Kucera, the 2009 downhill world champion who now coaches Canada’s alpine team. “For a sport like ours, we might pay for it earlier than others. We depend on the climate and the weather and that dictates what we are able to do.”
The fallout is widespread.
It’s harder to find glaciers suitable for training, so athletes have to look for new places – or even head inland. It is more difficult to organize World Cup events, because too much wind or too much snow or too little snow leads to postponements or cancellations.
It’s harder to find real snow anywhere, so more and more competition is coming to machine-made snow, which has its own negative effects on the environment. While high speeds, steep slopes and sharp angles make danger a constant presence in alpine skiing, regardless of the type of material underfoot, accidents causing injuries are increasingly common in Nordic skiing and biathlon, because the snow created by people makes it harder and more slippery. tracks.
“We’ve definitely noticed a lack of snow everywhere. Places that in December, November, were once ‘winter wonderlands’, we’re seeing with less and less snow. And some years they don’t get no snow,” said Taylor Fletcher, who grew up in Colorado, is based in Utah and made her fourth Olympic team in Nordic combined.
Many Winter Olympians share similar observations.
“I’m not a meteorologist,” laughed Italian Marta Bassino, winner of the giant slalom World Cup last season, “but I see it with my eyes.”
Alexis Pinturault, a three-time Olympic medalist for France, remembers hitting the slopes of Tignes in his country’s Alps 20 years ago, but notes “it’s almost impossible to ski there”. American skier Winter Vinecki recalls an event in Belarus where, instead of a seasonally appropriate frame, she competed in the middle of puddles. Says Taylor Gold, an American snowboarder who is part of Protect Our Winters, an athlete-focused environmental group: “The absolute ideal scenario would be to have a halfpipe made entirely of natural snow, but that’s no longer possible.”
A study recently published in “Current Issues in Tourism” predicted that without a dramatic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, only one of the previous 21 Winter Olympics venues would be able to reliably provide fair and safe conditions. by the end of this century.
Researchers from Austria, Canada and the United States have determined that even with emissions at the bottom of the scale, only three of the 12 European cities that hosted the Winter Games would be a reliable site within years. 2050.
“Part of what we do articles like this for is to send the message that we have great influence … and therefore, if we act, (there is) hope to avoid these worst-case scenarios” said Daniel Scott, a professor at the University of Waterloo who co-authored the study “Climate Change and the Future of the Winter Olympics: Athletes’ and Coaches’ Perspectives”.
“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 it doesn’t always happen.”
The International Olympic Committee says it will contractually oblige future hosts to be climate positive. The Beijing Games are supposed to be climate neutral; all venues are expected to be powered by renewable energy, and four rinks will use natural CO2 technology for cooling, replacing hydrofluorocarbons that further damage the ozone layer.
Wyoming rancher Tom Johnston oversees the shaping of artificial snow in the alpine courses of the Beijing mountains, which can be cold but lack real flakes. He has his own concerns regarding his two activities: the preparation of the ski slopes and, at home, the production of alfalfa.
He faces warmer, later-than-before winters in Colorado and Vermont that make it difficult to host World Cup races – and drought conditions that affect his farm.
“There are going to be problems,” said Johnston, who wonders if dates for future Games might need to be changed. “But I think sport is the last concern about climate change, in my opinion, compared to food.”
Efforts are being made. Some on an individual level. Some on a larger scale.
The National Ski Areas Association – a trade group that represents more than 300 alpine resorts in the United States – launched a “Climate Challenge” a decade ago to push its more than 300 members to monitor and reduce their carbon footprint. In the 2020-21 season, 31 ski areas participated.
Air travel required by the World Cup schedule weighs on two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin, especially when she thinks of stretches like the one that carried runners from Finland to Vermont in Canada to Switzerland for three weeks in November and December.
“I worry about the future of my sport but, way beyond that, I worry about our future and how long we have before everything really catches up with us,” said Shiffrin, a native from Colorado. “Sometimes I seriously consider giving up races because it’s one less plane trip to do. It would be a small contribution to a huge problem.”
Shiffrin and American snowboarder Maddie Mastro, among others, say they have cut back on meat consumption because the industry is hurting the planet. Vinecki grows her own fruits, vegetables and herbs in an aeroponic garden at home. Ganong rides a bike instead of driving a car, when possible, as do his American teammate Ryan Cochran-Siegle and Vincent Kriechmayr, an Austrian who won two gold medals at the 2021 Alpine World Championships. Keely Cashman, a America’s first alpine ski Olympian, limits the amount of new racing gear she gets.
Some think it’s too late.
“The reality is this ship has sailed, unfortunately, in my opinion. We haven’t made the required changes. We kind of missed the window,” said Bode Miller, who won an American record six medals. 2002 Alpine Olympics. -14. “So we’re dealing with what is, and it’s a changing climate. And over the course of my life, and certainly my children’s life, we’re going to see some really dramatic things happen.”
Miller is an investor and public face of Alpine-X, a group working to build indoor snow sports venues in the United States.
Some ski racers use indoor spots in Europe to train for technical events. Could actual World Cup events be next? Don’t forget: figure skating and ice hockey were played outdoors at the Olympics, so it might not be entirely a stretch to imagine other sports moving indoors.
Another alternative: find new race sites or go to places higher in the mountains, where temperatures are colder and where real snow might be more likely.
“There’s nothing wrong with indoor skiing in New Jersey, but it’s not exactly the same as staying on top of the mountain in Deer Valley (Utah) or staying on top from the mountains in Austria,” said Ted Ligety, an American who won Alpine Olympic gold medals in 2006 and 2014. “There is no substitute for outdoor beauty, fresh air.”