Posted inSports

When the Snow Begins to Melt

Johannes Moehrle discusses the negative environmental impact of awarding major sports events to countries that lack the capacity or desire to combat the associated infrastructure challenges  

On the 20th of February, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics drew to an end with a grand closing ceremony celebrating the successes of all the athletes. Despite my genuine admiration and enthusiasm for these men and women who undoubtedly made their dreams come true through their participation at what is the most important event of most athletes’ careers, I couldn’t help wondering at what costs (other than their own personal sacrifices) these achievements came. Indeed, whilst the human rights abuses from the Chinese government were widely commented upon in the run up to the Olympics, less attention was given to the environmental abuse generated by these Olympic games, despite calling themselves the “eco-games”. However, upon closer inspection of the environmental impact of this year’s Olympics, it is all too obvious that they were nothing short of an ecological aberration. 

To start with the lowest hanging fruit, it seems that it would be common sense to organise Winter Olympic Games in a place where there is enough snow to host the disciplines for which snow is needed (i.e. half of them).  Apparently not, if judging by the pictures of the green mountains the skiers skied down from. Yanqing, where all skiing events were held, recorded about 2cm last year, which is about the same as Oxford. 

This year’s Winter Olympics were therefore the first ones in history to be held entirely on artificial snow. The region is so unacquainted with real snow, that when it surprisingly snowed a few centimetres on the 13th of February, the organisers were left unprepared to deal with it and as a consequence, several events had to be postponed. 

So why is it so absurd to rely entirely on artificial snow, if the athletes feel comfortable racing on it? The issue with artificial snow is that it needs enormous amounts of water for it to be produced; water which Beijing and the region around it already severely lacks. Estimates say that around 222 million litres of water  (about 1.5 million bathtubs) were needed to produce the required snow. In an age where we are all asked to make an effort to save the one resource we need for our survival this seems a bit out of place, don’t you think?

Well, perhaps one could think that the excessive use of water isn’t that big a deal, since it’s a one-time thing, and that the water used could at least be partly recuperated when the snow melts. What however cannot be taken back is the land used for all the infrastructure. For a starter, all the ski venues are in the middle of what used to be a nature reserve. When Chinese conservationists and scientists brought that up, the Chinese officials, rather than change the location of the ski venues, redrew de boundaries of the nature reserve, so that the Olympic ski slopes would no longer appear as built inside a nature reserve. Unfortunately, you don’t need to be an expert in nature conservation to understand that this is not how nature works and that a nature reserve can’t just be shifted around according to where you want your ski slopes to be built.

What is most infuriating, however, is not the use of natural land itself – this happens every day everywhere – but it is the fact that most of this infrastructure will never be used again after these games. Recent history has shown how Olympic Game infrastructures (for the winter and the summer editions) are too often single-use items, which in most cases are not even disposable. Although skiing is slowly gaining in popularity in China, it is still a very new phenomenon, and I doubt that Olympic downhill slopes are of much use to the average Chinese skier. If the ski infrastructures won’t be overused, what will happen to the bobsleigh tracks, the ski jumping hills, and all the other infrastructures for sports which don’t seem to attract the masses anywhere? The fact is that most countries do not need such infrastructure and that the maintenance of these become a huge burden once the Games are over.

One only needs to turn to previous editions of summer and winter games to see that Olympic infrastructure being abandoned after the games has become the norm. Reports from Rio (Summer games in 2016) to Pyeongchang (Winter 2018) have shown that the stadium and tracks have not been used since the end of the games and are in a state which is beyond repair. Weeds have taken over the sports fields, and the waters of various pools and melted ice-rinks have been stagnating since. 

Nonetheless, this lesson hasn’t yet been learnt by the International Olympic Committee and indeed by other major sports organisations.  For instance, FIFA, whose upcoming football World Cup in Qatar requires climatised stadiums, built using forced labour, is guilty of similar ecological and ethical nonsense. The country mostly consists of sand deserts, and temperatures all year round rarely drop below 25 degrees. Whilst I hope that the stadiums will be used for more than just one month of the tournament, I sadly can’t see how the eight 60,000-capacity stadiums built in a country that doesn’t have a long-lasting football tradition will continue to be maintained and remain in use.

In an age where the protection of human rights and of the environment is being taken more seriously than ever, it is time for the sports world to change its ways and to not only claim that their events are eco-friendly, but to plan them so that the infrastructures can be of use for many years after the events. This, however, will also require careful choice about the host nations for large tournaments, and a focus on building the infrastructure in places where there’s a need rather than a wish.

Photo Credits: Martin Rulsch