Column: Arctic city throws hat in ring for Summer Olympics

PAUL NEWBERRY
·5 min read

Erkki Parkkinen had just come in from a lovely February day in Salla.

The temperature climbed all the way to minus-10 degrees Celsius — roughly 14 degrees Fahrenheit. After a sluggish start to snow season, there's now plenty of white stuff for skiing and other winter activities.

“I was with my daughter outside an hour ago,” Parkinnen said when reached Friday evening on a Zoom call. “It was nice.”

Parkinnen and the tiny Finnish town where he was born and now serves as mayor want to keep it that way.

That's why Salla has launched a firmly tongue-in-cheek bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics, hoping to use its campaign to raise awareness about climate change and global warming.

“Maybe people will start to think a little bit more,” Parkinnen says. “If they think the Arctic areas are worth saving, maybe they will do that for their own homes and lands. That's something that would be good for them and good for us.”

You see, Salla loves its winters just the way they've been for centuries.

Located roughly 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Arctic Circle, not far from the border with Russia, the town's hearty residents cherish the bitter cold, the frozen rivers and lakes, the reindeer running wild through the pristine, snow-covered forests of Lapland.

But the way things are going in the world, with rising temperatures and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, Parkinnen and his village of 3,400 truly worry it could all be snatched away.

Which brings us to Salla's quixotic Olympic bid, one that the town hopes never has even the slightest chance of success.

“We don't want to have to arrange the Summer Games in 2032," Parkinnen says. “We don't want to be the best place. Ever.”

But, if the world doesn't address an increasingly gloomy environmental outlook, Parkinnen frets that Salla could actually have the climate to host sports such as athletics and swimming and beach volleyball.

He's already noticed troubling changes in wintertime.

The snow seems to arrive later and later. The temperatures fluctuate more and more. It's getting increasingly difficult to carve out safe trails for skiing. The reindeer are having trouble finding food.

“It didn't happen before like that,” he mayor says. “That's why we are concerned. Also, in the Arctic areas, when climate change happens, it comes much more rapidly than other places."

With its Olympic bid, Salla is using humor to get folks to recognize a serious issue that affects us all.

The town launched a farcical website that introduces us to their proposed Olympic mascot: Kesa the Rangifer Tarandus Reindeer, touted as the same species that pulls Santa's sleigh and an appropriate symbol for a community where there are twice as many Rudolphs as humans.

Salla also produced a 2 1/2-minute video touting all the supposed benefits of awarding the Summer Games to an Arctic town.

I mean, how could the International Olynmpic Committee possibly turn down a bid that comes with the motto: “Salla. In the middle of nowhere" — which apparently beat out its other option, “Salla. The coldest place in Finland.”

The video shows the town's residents, decked out like they're heading to a pool in Southern California, sarcastically talking about all the benefits of global warming.

“I'll work on my suntan,” one man says.

Another, climbing into the water of an ice-covered lake while licking on an ice cream cone, notes that this could soon be a venue for Olympic water sports.

“Ice will be gone," he says, “and this will be a perfect lake.”

A woman strings up a net at a site she says will be suitable for beach volleyball when the snow turns to sand in about a decade. Another person scoots down a ski slope on a mountain bike. A shirtless man slides along the snow on a surfboard. A skateboarder says he can't wait to pull off some gnarly tricks in 2032.

"No more slippery ice," he says. “Thanks global warming.”

Of course, with any Summer Olympics bid, the first order of business is determining where 30-odd sports will be played.

Granted, Salla is a bit lacking in this area. Parkinnen says there is an indoor hall where sports such as volleyball are played by the locals. Asked for its capacity, he replies, “Maybe you can have a few fans.”

That's about it.

For now.

“We have plenty of area,” Parkinnen says, playing right along in his role as the Billy Payne of Salla. “We have 6,000-square kilometers (about 2,300 square miles, which is more than the cities of Rio de Janeiro and London combined). We can build. We have plenty of time.”

Actually, though, Salla is proposing a more natural approach to its version of the Summer Games.

“We could have swimming in the rivers and lakes,” Parkinnen proposes. “We could go back to the basics and do the sports in not such big infrastructure and big stadiums, but do it in the nature. We have that here.”

What about all the tourists who'll be descending on Salla if it wins the games?

“We have plenty of room for everybody,” Parkinnen insists, before listing off all the activities that visitors can take part in. “People can hike. We have hiking roads, and people can hike in the nature of course. We have swimming and rowing and canoeing. And one other important thing you can do is move around with no voices. It's nice in the nature, and there are no voices.”

In today's world, silence does have its appeal.

Oh, and Salla has one more thing in its favor. During the summer, there are days when the sun never sets. The IOC could schedule events around the clock — and wouldn't even need to put up lights.

“The midnight sun is very nice,” Parkinnen says.

Of course, this is all in good fun.

But the mayor and his constituents are dead serious about the potentially cataclysmic changes to the environment.

The world should heed the real message of this Olympic bid.

That's no joke.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry196 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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