The Winter Olympian’s climate change ‘conundrum’

·8 min read

BEIJING — Thousands of Winter Olympians spend chunks of every year traversing some of the most picturesque places on earth. They travel from North American ski resorts to Nordic utopias to the European Alps. They bask in lily-white powder and heavenly sunsets. They look around and cherish mountainside views and, increasingly, they also worry — because they see climate change gnawing away at all of it.

They see glaciers melting.

Ice chunks tumbling.

“It sounds like avalanches every day,” American snowboarder Keith Gabel said. “You'll just see snow waterfalls coming down the cliffs.”

They know their seasons are getting shorter, and half-pipes are getting harder and harder to find. They fear for the future of their sports, because they see natural racecourses turning to slush.

“It just won't freeze for a week,” U.S. biathlete Sean Doherty said. “And it's just kind of chaos.”

Some Olympians gathered in Switzerland for preseason training this past fall, and it was, U.S. snowboarder Jamie Anderson said, “A pure physical testimony to how gnarly climate change is. … You can just see the declining glaciers. ... It is so bad.

“But, I mean, I'm still here snowboarding,” she continued. “I know I'm just as much a part of the problem as the solution.”

She and others know that, by flying across Europe, and requiring man-made snow, two of many activities that harm the environment, they are contributing to the very crisis that endangers their sports.

“It's tough for the competitors to race in,” Doherty said. “But it's also tough because our racing circuit itself is pretty high-impact on the problem contributing to the fact that we're skiing in slush. Which is kind of a conundrum.”

It’s the Winter Olympian’s conundrum. It's microcosmic of humanity’s conundrum. Livelihoods and joy clash with the health of the planet. The Olympians have things they love. They know that indulging in those things might prevent future generations from loving them. But what are they supposed to do, retire?

It’s a conundrum many have grappled with, even as they prepared for the biggest moments of their lives, the Beijing Olympics. And they, like society at large, have found palatable solutions elusive.

'Our slopes are melting'

Tangible evidence of a warming planet startles just about every Winter Olympian and Paralympian who competes outdoors.

“Up on the glacier,” said Alex Hall, a U.S. freestyle skier, “you can tell a huge difference with what it looks like now compared to even five years ago.”

“It's pretty scary to see it all happen,” said Red Gerard, the 2018 slopestyle snowboarding Olympic champ. “It's definitely kind of a trip to watch climate change do its thing.”

“Our slopes,” Paralympic skier Thomas Walsh said, “are melting.”

It is clear to many of them, as U.S. freeskier Maggie Voisin said, that “climate change is real, and it's here, and it is 100% affecting our sport.” And even if they don’t believe it’s an existential threat, they believe it’s a threat to those sports.

They don’t worry about World Cup circuits or international events. They worry, instead, about the small-time venues that feed the Olympic pipeline, the ones without the resources to create snow, the ones who rely on the natural stuff that falls from the sky, and who’ve had to cancel festivals when it doesn’t.

“The venues that we race at can make snow happen, can make the race happen, for the elite athletes,” said Susan Dunklee, a U.S. biathlete. “But my concern is for, as a snow lover, wanting to see snow in places where a general recreational skier has been able to ski. I don't want them to lose access to snow either. And that's a major issue with climate change.”

The problem is rarely noticeable, but obviously growing. A recent Nature study projected that the western U.S. will face persistent “low-to-no snow” predicaments in 35-60 years “if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.” Some ski resorts in the region are already feeling the effects.

“Recognizing those challenges,” said U.S. alpine skier Ryan Cochran-Siegle, “is key in order to keep our sport alive.”

YANQING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 06:  A view of the finish line following the postponement of the Men's Downhill due to high winds on day two of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at National Alpine Ski Centre on February 06, 2022 in Yanqing, China. (Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images)
The slope in Yanqing, China, site of the Alpine events for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, requires 100% man-made snow. (Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

Fake snow necessitates fake snow

The issue, of course, is that in the immediate term, greenhouse gases also keep sports alive. Cochran-Siegle and others quoted in this story competed at the PyeongChang Olympics, which carried an estimated carbon footprint of 1.6 million metric tons. In other words, the Games were responsible for more emissions than dozens of entire countries produce in a calendar year.

Beijing organizers have revised their footprint estimate to 1.3 million metric tons of CO2e, and said they will offset all emissions by sponsoring compensatory initiatives. The International Olympic Committee claims it is carbon neutral, and aims to make all Games "climate positive” by 2030. It has already spearheaded environmental progress throughout the sports world. Still, though, its banner event consumes gargantuan supplies of natural resources.

One oft-discussed source of consumption, especially ahead of the 2022 Olympics, is man-made snow.

Beijing was a controversial choice to host the Games, in part due to meager snowfall. IOC officials warned in a 2015 bid evaluation report that "the Games would rely completely on artificial snow” if held in and around the Chinese capital. Members voted for it anyway, and according to environmentalists, the planet and its inhabitants will bear the costs. Organizers will use an estimated 49 million gallons of water, if not much more, to build icy slopes down otherwise dry mountains. “Snow cannons” will shoot water droplets into the air; freezing temperatures and chemicals will turn them into ice. Experts say the process will exacerbate “water stress” in the region, and interrupt its natural ecosystem. They also warn that it requires significant non-renewable energy.

It therefore becomes part of a positive feedback loop. Fake snow contributes to climate change, which further necessitates fake snow, which contributes further to climate change. There’s no obvious way to break the cycle.

Other aspects of winter sports, such as fluorocarbon ski wax, have also drawn the attention of environmental policy makers and sports federations. But sport’s biggest contribution to the climate crisis, experts say, is the travel it requires. Transporting athletes, officials and fans to and from competitions, via carbon-intensive airplanes and vehicles, can constitute some 60-80% of the emissions connected to an event. The Olympics, which often bring hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world to a given country, are no exception.

The travel, to some extent, is unavoidable. Simply participating in a sport at an international level does damage. Some Olympians have reconciled this with their environmental concerns by finding eco-friendly ways to personally compensate.

Doing their part

When Susan Dunklee returned home from the Biathlon World Championships with a silver medal in her pocket and prize money in her bank account, she realized she could use it to give back to the planet. She paid to have solar panels installed at her house.

“And it's been a wonderful, wonderful thing,” she said. “It's really cool to produce your own energy.”

More recently, she traded in her car for an electric one, another step toward doing her part.

In earth’s grand scheme, it’s a small part. One electric car, or one sporting event, or even 49 million gallons of water turned to fake snow aren’t alone going to determine the planet’s long-term well-being. This, of course, is the broader climate dilemma. No single person’s actions make a material difference. But collectively, they could make a massive one.

“So,” said Gabel, the snowboarder, “we gotta take things seriously and make small changes. It all adds up.”

The Winter Olympians’ solutions have been threefold. They try to lead green lives at home. They recycle, and abstain from single-use plastics, and support companies who do the same. They also realize that governments have true power to combat climate change at scale, so they support organizations like Protect Our Winters, a non-profit “advancing non-partisan policies that protect our world today and for future generations.”

And then they do this. They speak. Their platforms, most experts agree, are an athlete’s biggest tool in the fight for the planet. “That's the power of sport,” said Roger McClendon, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance. “It's not what it can do within the industry alone, it's what it can influence. It's the influence that is the biggest horsepower of change.”

“And it's encouraging to hear people have interest in it,” said U.S. skier Gus Schumacher. “To have a dialogue around the Winter Olympics about climate change, I think, is as important as our individual efforts to limit travel, and try to avoid plastic, and stuff like that.

“I think it's really important to focus on as we go,” he concluded, “because otherwise, we're not gonna have a Winter Olympics in not that long.”