Climate Change is Ruining the Winter Olympics

A recent study published in the Current Issues in Tourism surveyed 339 elite athletes and coaches from 20 countries to establish conditions needed for fair and safe snow sports competitions such as the Winter Olympics. Using those criteria, unfair and unsafe conditions have increased in frequency over the last 50 years, and will continue to increase under all future climate change scenarios.

The study found that if emissions remain on their current trajectory, out of the 21 past Olympic Winter Games locations, only one of those host cities – Sapporo, Japan – would be a reliable host by the end of the 21st century. Even if we dropped emissions to the terms of the Paris Agreement, only around nine of the previous Winter Olympics hosts could be a fair and safe host in the 2080s.

Not only are injury rates higher at winter games compared to summer games, but the last three Olympic Winter Games had the highest injury incidence rates recorded. Among athletes and coaches, 89% felt that changing weather was affecting sporting conditions and 94% said that they fear climate change will adversely impact the future development of their sport.

This year, Beijing will probably rely 100% on fake snow for the Olympic Games in a city already facing droughts and water scarcity. China may need to provide as many as 49 million gallons of chemically-treated water, straining already-scarce resources, further damaging the environment, and increasing health risks to Olympians, tourists, and the workers who will have to deal with the aftermath of the Games.

The climate crisis is changing all aspects of our lives, including this enormous, international event that brings in billions of dollars to corporate sponsors and the International Olympic Committee. Despite the clear impact of climate change and its risks to those profits, the so-called world leaders continue to do nothing to address the climate crisis. As athletes at risk of injury or of losing access to their sport, as workers who face worsening and dangerous conditions, and as people worldwide who face water and food scarcity and natural disasters, change will only come when we demand it and take the wheel of our own future.