The future of the Winter Olympics: Skating on Thin Ice?

By Alex Diggins

The Olympics are never just about the sport. And the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics was no exception, providing sporting drama and geo-political excitement in equal measure: North and South Korea marching under the flag of unification for the first time since 2006; Russia banned from competing, and yet 168 of their athletes taking part; Great Britain achieving a record five medals and celebrating their first double winter Olympian in Lizzie Yarnold. However, amidst these news-worthy stories, a far greater threat to the future of the Winter Olympics went mostly unremarked: the world is running out of snow. And as a recent report by The Economist suggests, not only could a more unstable climate spell the end of snow-sure Winter Olympics, but the future of winter sports, in general, is under threat in our rapidly warming climate.

Winter Olympics - the dream

The Dream. Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Alpine Skiers.

Admittedly, watching the Olympics on TV, it can be difficult to make the connection between the dare-devil athleticism of the competitors and global warming. This is because the athletes’ extraordinary skill and dedication make them seem utterly at home in their arenas: whether on the ice-skating ring or the bobsleigh run, the competitors seem so natural and so secure, that it is easy to assume their environments are equally natural and secure. However, at the risk of labouring the obvious: these arenas, these careful constructions of temperature and technology, are deeply artificial and markedly vulnerable to climatic change. The South Koreans went, unsurprisingly, to great lengths to disguise this fact: part of the strange mythology of the Olympics, and especially the Winter Olympics, is maintaining the illusion the massive apparatus of the games – all the stadia, the accommodation, the ski runs – suddenly sprang into life when the first TV cameras were switched on. We see the finished product and complacently assume it was always there. We are usually encouraged to ignore the extraordinary amounts of time, energy and, of course, money, that went into building this fantasia of sporting prowess and international co-operation, all prettily decked out in picturesque winter conditions. But it seems that climate change is calling time on this charade, melting the illusion as surely as the carefully groomed slopes will vanish into slush and meltwater as the last competitors catch flights back home.
For their research, the team at The Economist measured what they termed the ‘climatic reliability’ of past and future host cities of the Winter Olympics. They analysed how these usually snow-sure venues would fare under the context of low average emissions (that is, below the warming limit of 2 degrees agreed under the Paris Climate Conference) and high average emissions (above warming limits). Even in the context of low average emissions, their findings were stark: only 13 of the 21 host cities would be able to guarantee snow by 2050. And, in the context of high emissions, the figures are even bleaker: just eight could be sure of a white winter by the 2080s. These findings suggest that the already exorbitant economic and environmental costs of hosting the games are sure to rise even more. As the Economist article ruefully identifies, the sight of helicopters desperately ferrying snow in time for the start of 2010 Vancouver games is set to become the norm, not an aberration.
But their research also suggests that the future of snow sports, in general, is decidedly (d)icy. Already it looks like the number of skier-days (whole or partial days spent on the slopes) has peaked across the Western World – numbers fell, in fact, from about 350m in 2008-9 to about 320m in 2015-2016. This fall could be explained by the economic crash of 2008 and shifting consumer tastes towards less expensive hobbies. But the otherwise rugged growth of the outdoor sector suggests people are getting increasingly fed up with travelling large distances, at considerable expense, only to be met by the sad sight of bare rock and dirt where pristine white runs should gleam. This is bad news for the Winter Olympics, as countries can often only justify their expense by arguing that these events ensure a ‘knock-on’ effect in wider society, inspiring the general population to get involved and therefore to lead healthier, fitter lives. This has always been a tenuous argument when it comes to sports like skiing because unlike say, running, its expense is already a considerable barrier to entry and a factor that ensures it remains a pastime of the better-off. However, if a more unstable climate means that resorts will struggle to maintain conditions, then even the wealthier classes will likely think twice before making their annual February half-term pilgrimage to Verbier.

Skking brown slopes

The Reality. Photo credit: The Telegraph.

The resorts are doing their best to cope: many are increasingly diversifying into a range of other activities like snow-shoeing or tobogganing which can be enjoyed without large dumps of snow and careful management; whereas others are burying their heads in the (artificial) snow and devising ever more elaborate and precarious systems for grooming, storing, and creating snow to ensure runs stay open. However, the evidence suggests that they are fighting a losing battle: The Alps, one of the most popular areas for winter sports, have already warmed by 2 degrees and glacial melting, especially in the heat of summer, is fierce and unstoppable. None of these factors bode well for the future of the Winter Olympics which seem to be in a double bind as consumer tastes and interests shift away from winter sports, and an increasingly erratic climate makes ensuring white slopes ever more expensive and difficult. This is not to argue that winter sports and the Olympics will disappear overnight – they are, and will remain, enormously popular. And the Winter Olympics are too good a licensing and PR opportunity to pass up lightly. But as research like that published in The Economist argues, and as the trickle of disappointed holiday-makers reaches critical mass, it does seem that the Winter Olympics, and snow sports in general, have hit a rough patch and gone into a skid from which they may never recover.

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