Olympics / Winter Olympics / Winter Sports

Snow worries: Beijing’s artificial snow and climate change putting future Winter Games at risk

In Phys.org, Natalie L. B. Knowles explained why there was so little snow in Beijing, leading to an influx of artificial snow to compensate:

Recent Winter Olympics, including those in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014, have been held under temperatures far warmer than those locations experienced throughout the past century. While Games held in the 1920s to 1950s had an average February daytime temperature of 0.4 C, average February temperatures increased to 3.1 C between 1960 and 1990. Since the beginning of the 21st century, host locations, including Beijing, have a current average February temperature of 6.3 C.

These rapidly rising temperatures are making winter increasingly unreliable for sports. Artificial snow-making now joins indoor ice rinks and refrigerated bobsled tracks as an essential element of weather risk management for winter sports.

Even with top-of-the-line snow-making systems in place, recent Olympics have had to resort to last-minute adaptations, such as helicoptering in snow, building jumps and halfpipes out of plywood and hay bales or canceling pre-competition training.

Knowles was a co-author in a paper called ‘Climate change and the future of the Olympic Winter Games: athlete and coach perspectives’ that addressed the IOC’s awareness of environmental risks to the Games and a need to take action as soon as possible. But athletes’ opinions are often overlooked in these conversations and they’re the ones getting injured the most:

[…] Olympic events seek to showcase the skills of the world’s greatest athletes on a world stage. Athletes risk serious injury as they race 160 km per hour down a steep slope, throw tomahawks in a superpipe or complete complex aerials 20 metres in the air. Studies of injury rates are not only higher at the winter versus summer Games, but also the last three OWGs had the highest injury incidence rates recorded among Olympic/Paralympic alpine skiing/snowboarding/freestyle athletes (55% higher versus other OWGs) (Derman et al., 20162019; Jones, 2021).

Could we get more indoor events as decades go on? Entire Games under a roof or events getting removed altogether? As much as I love the Winter Olympics, I don’t foresee enough action that will reverse current and future effects of climate change.

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