BASIS - The British Association for Sustainable Sport

Winter Olympic Games

Does Beijing 2022 Signal the Future of the Olympic Winter Games?

By Walker J. Ross

One of the popular stories surrounding these upcoming Winter Olympic Games has been use of artificial snowmaking by Beijing and other host communities. While previous Winter Games hosts have sometimes had to create artificial snow to augment natural snow, this edition of the Winter Games depends wholly on the creation of artificial snow. Is this a signal about the future of the Olympic Winter Games? Only time will truly tell. However, the International Olympic Committee and international sport federation officials ought to be concerned moving forward about the climate security of their events.

A recent report from Protect Our Winters (available to download here) details several concerns with the Beijing 2022 Winter Games. When awarding this event, it was well known that Beijing and the other host communities (Yanquing district and Chongli district) did not have consistently cold enough temperatures nor adequate precipitation levels for natural snowmaking sufficient for the needs of these sports. Promises were made of the sustainability of the event and a commitment to carbon neutrality, but this will be difficult to achieve given that these Winter Games will require artificial snowmaking to provide all of the necessary conditions for staging these outdoor events.

It has been well-documented that artificial snow requires an abundance of electricity, emissions-creating equipment, freshwater resources, and chemicals to replicate the conditions of natural snow. Moreover, it may stay on the ground longer depending on the chemical additives to the water, which may delay the growth of vegetation under the artificial snow. Given the proximity of these event sites to the Songshan National Nature Reserve, this is a concern in protecting the biodiversity of the region. Lastly, while some competition venues are compact in size and more easily covered in artificial snow and ice (e.g., ski jumping and bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton tracks), downhill ski and snowboard runs as well as cross country and biathlon courses will require high use of artificial snow over a large area. Depending on the weather conditions of the day, artificial snow may need to be constantly added to ensure competitive quality.

Despite the climate of the region not naturally supporting winter sports, the fundamental problem here lies not with the hosts, but with the IOC for awarding the Winter Games to a region so dependent upon artificial snow. In fact, this may not be a concern limited to Beijing. It may be extended to more future host cities of the Winter Games. Recent research has projected that climate change will impact the Olympic Games’ environmental conditions of the next decade with the largest issue being heat: too hot in the summer Games and too warm in the Winter Games (Ross & Orr, 2021). Another study examined all Winter Games host communities prior to the 2014 Winter Games and projected that only 10 or 11 of the 19 hosts will remain climatically viable communities for the Winter Games in the 2050s (Scott et al., 2015). This should raise the alarm bells for the IOC and winter sport federations.

Perhaps the future of the Winter Games will be dependent on artificial snowmaking? Thus making Beijing 2022 the norm rather than the exception. Milan-Cortina in 2026 are projected to have adequate snow conditions, but beyond that it is hard to know with certainty. This cannot be desirable for an IOC that is committed to environmental sustainability through its Agenda 2020+5 and has helped develop the United Nations Sport for Climate Action Framework. Nor can it be desirable for the winter sport federations to have some of their most popular and widely watched events be held in artificial conditions.

Future editions of the Winter Games might have to make some radical decisions regarding the viability of these sports compared to the communities that host and the scale of the event. As climate change warms our planet, communities with adequate conditions to host winter sports may see their seasons shortened or even eliminated altogether. In accordance with previous research (Scott et al., 2015), this will shrink the potential list of communities who can (or let alone want to) host the Winter Games.

Multi-site Winter Games have been a common feature of recent previous editions of the events: the main hosts are larger cities (e.g., Salt Lake City, Vancouver, and Sochi) that hold indoor events while outdoor and alpine events are held elsewhere (e.g., Park City, Whistler, and Krasnaya Polyana). Perhaps the scope of the event may need to be reconsidered to ensure that outdoor events may be held in natural conditions?

For example, ice hockey was first held at the summer Games in 1920. Given the artificial conditions (i.e., indoor and climate controlled) for sports like curling, figure skating, ice hockey, and speed skating, they could be held in the summer Games. This would decrease the size of the Winter Games event and create opportunities for smaller communities to host since they would only require infrastructure for alpine events as well as a bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton track.

These suggestions aside, the IOC and winter sport federations must be concerned about the combination of climate change and a shrinking pool of climatically viable and willing host communities. Something will need to change in the future. Otherwise 100% artificial snowmaking will become standard protocol for the Winter Games with all of the environmental and climate impacts that will bring.

Research Cited for Curious Readers

Ross, W. J., & Orr, M. (2021). Predicting climate impacts to the Olympic Games and FIFA Men’s World Cups from 2022 to 2032. Sport in Society. Advance online publication.

Scott, D., Steiger, R., Rutty, M., and Fang, Y. (2019). The changing geography of the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in a warmer world. Current Issues in Tourism, 22 (11), 1301–1311.

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