The winter Olympic games - two sides of the medal

by Kirstin Brünjes, 26.02.2022
The whole world watches while the best athletes of different nations compete against each other in different disciplines. The Olympic Games are #mega events where top athletes spar, that inspiring people and where the world comes together. However, let us give this shiny medal a spin and see what comes to light - unfortunately, evidence of increasing environmental damage associated with winter sports is mounting.

Nevertheless, there are ways to run the Olympic Games in a more sustainable way.

Related SDGs

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) showcases this major event to be and exemplary representative for sustainability. Alas, the marketing rhetoric contradicts realities of this mega-event. The adverse impact ski sports have on the environment are hard to overlook. It is thus legitimate to ask: How sustainable are the Winter Olympics? For the first time, science and research are conducting a systematic assessment of the sustainability of the Olympic Games.  The results of this research dampen the joy for the Winter Games in Beijing.

Carmen de Jong (geographer, University of Strasbourg) concludes that this February’s Beijing Winter Olympics are “the least sustainable Games ever” in terms of environmental degradation. Here are the reasons why:

Enormous amounts of water and energy are consumed for the purpose of constructing artificial snow slopes

It snows little in the mountains that surround Beijing. The ground is so dry that does not even freeze during this winter season. For this reason, snow machines have been running throughout while dispensing up to 10 liters of artificial snow per second on the downhill slopes since mid-November 2021. Imagine, the snow slopes require more than 2 million cubic meters (m³) of water which is sourced from remote lakes. As a result, thereof water levels lowered and the surrounding ecosystem are impaired. In addition, snow machines consume vast amounts of energy. While running 24/7 they emit enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Lack of respect for nature in the reserve

The venue is located in the middle of a nature reserve. After the IOC selected Beijing as the venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the boundaries of the reserve were changed so that the mountains – which are in the center – are no longer part of the reserve. The downhill slope is now directly in the center and the Olympic Village at the top of the reserve.

A relocation project is intended to preserve the nearby vegetation in the reserve. As commendable as this undertaking seems, it increases the risk of soil erosion and possible landslides in the region.

More sustainable Olympics are possible

Sven Daniel Wolfe (Urban and Political Geographer, University of Lausanne) and his team of researchers analyzed 16 Summer and Winter Olympic Games between 1992 – 2020. The results: The overall sustainability of the Olympic Games is mediocre and has declined over time.

However, the analysis also reveals opportunities of how to plan and carry out the Olympic Games which are more sustainable:

  1. Less is more! Reduce the size of the event significantly
  2. Rotating the Olympic Games between exiting venues
  3. Enforce and monitor independent sustainability standards

Without question, the Olympics induce sensational momentum: It gives people lifelong unforgettable memories and has a positive impact on an entire country. This sentiment must be preserved. Fortunately, the winds are changing in the Olympic sky: The IOCs has announced its determination to make the Games climate-neutral by 2024 and climate-positive as of 2030.

 Prominent athletes advocate for more sustainability

Olympic guidelines and policies are outdated and thus in dire need of revision. According to Felix Neureuther (former Olympic ski racer) revised guidelines should be “based on respect for human rights, participation, financial viability and, above all, sustainability“. New Zealand’s pole vaulter Eliza McCartney took up environmental studies due to the observed ecological predicaments, because “(…) it suddenly felt morally wrong not to act“. Carolina Visca (Italy, European U20 javelin champion) is committed to environmental sustainability and used the coronavirus suspension to engage fans and other athletes – with her “Green Mind” video project on her Instagram and Facebook page – in discussions about environmental issues.

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