Climate change threatens future Winter Olympics

If greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced to meet Paris Agreement targets, very few cities will be able to host the Winter Olympics with safe conditions for athletes by the end of the century, according to a study by the University of Waterloo in Ontario.

Posted at 9:35 p.m.

Stephane Blais
The Canadian Press

Going down a snowy slope at 120 km per hour, with your feet strapped to two boards, with a helmet as your only protection, involves risks, regardless of the weather conditions.

But the risks are even greater if the snow is heavy because it is not cold enough or if the amount of snow is insufficient, as is unfortunately the case in many competitions.

“The world of winter sports is changing as climate change accelerates, and the international athletes and coaches we interviewed are witnessing the impacts at competition and training venues, including the Olympics,” said Daniel Scott, professor of geography and environmental management at Waterloo.

His team distributed a survey to athletes, especially skiers, who participate in international competitions. Athletes had to answer questions about the safest weather conditions to compete.

“We wanted to understand, from an athlete’s perspective, what weather and snow conditions make competition fair and safe, and then determine which Olympic hosts could provide those conditions in the future,” said Natalie Knowles, Ph.D. and former Canadian elite skier who took part in the study.

According to the document, if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced in a way that meets the objectives of the Paris Agreement, only one of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics could offer safe conditions. athletes, by the end of the century.

Thus, in a few decades, the cities of Calgary and Vancouver would not offer winter conditions that meet the safety standards desired by athletes and coaches.

Of the 21 cities that have hosted the Winter Olympics, only the city of Sapporo, Japan would be able to provide a safe environment.

The researchers looked at climate data dating back to the 1920s, as well as climate models that estimate what the climate will be like by 2050 and 2080.

Ideal temperatures

They surveyed 339 elite athletes and coaches from 20 countries about temperature, amount of snow, snow type and consistency, wind, rain, fog and other weather elements that influence performance safety. .

Respondents observed that warmer temperatures exacerbate adverse snow conditions, heat stress for athletes, equipment breakage and reduced visibility caused by fogging up of ski goggles.

“Temperature has a significant impact on snow conditions – particularly warm temperatures make snow heavy and dangerous at high speeds,” remarked a skier in the downhill alpine skiing event, quoted as anonymous in the study.

Another slalom specialist commented that when it’s too hot, “the tension is hard to manage, fatigue and the risk of injury are higher, the equipment in general, but especially the shoes become too soft – and the inadequate control on skis – dangerous! “.

The majority of athletes and coaches indicated that temperatures below -20°C or above 10°C are “unacceptable” for safe and fair competition.

On the other hand, the majority noted that the ideal temperatures are between -10°C and -1°C.

Sochi: the example to avoid

The city of Sochi, which hosted the 2014 games, is cited in the study led by Professor Daniel Scott as an example of a place to avoid for the organization of winter competitions.

With temperatures that sometimes approached 20 degrees Celsius, these games were the hottest in the history of winter Olympics, but they were also difficult and painful for a significant number of athletes.

“Higher accident and injury rates […] were partly attributed to higher ambient temperatures and lower quality snow conditions,” reads the study published in the journal Current Issues in Tourism.

A strong trend

Former Olympic champion Jean-Luc Brassard denounces the tendency to organize large-scale ski competitions in cities where there is little or no snow, which puts the safety of athletes at risk.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, he gave the example of Zagreb, Croatia, where a World Cup slalom event was canceled two weeks ago due to mild weather.

A third of the 61 skiers had completed a run when the weather forced the organizers to stop the event.

Among them was Victor Muffat-Jeandet who broke his fibula, ending his dream of competing in the Beijing Olympics. On Facebook, the Frenchman questioned the poor quality of the snow.


Victor Muffat Jeandet in Zagreb, Croatia, on January 6th.

“It gave way under my weight, I was unbalanced and all of my right ski suddenly came to a complete stop in weird, uneven snow. I immediately felt a big lever arm, a sensation in my shoe and it broke my fibula,” he wrote.

The event “was a disaster and there was grass appearing on the track,” explained Jean-Luc Brassard.

“We put an athlete’s life in danger, simply for show,” denounced the former freestyle skiing champion.

make snow

To compensate for the lack of natural snow, the organizers of the Beijing Winter Games are using artificial snow, as was the case in Sochi in 2014 and PyeongChang in 2018.

China estimated in 2019 that it would need 185 million liters of water to cover the tracks.

According to the Hong Kong-based NGO China Water Risk, water is being pumped from an agricultural sector that was already under “significant water stress” before the preparations for the games.

Beijing Games spokesperson Yan Jiarong recently said that “the artificial snowmaking system uses the most advanced water-saving equipment in the world” and that the situation “will not have an impact on security of water supply in the region and the ecological environment”.

But as Professor Daniel Scott points out, “pumping water in the heart of a region known for its winter drought raises questions about the sustainable and ecological aspect of the games” which the International Olympic Committee prides itself on.

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