As Salt Lake City continues its quest to host another Winter Games a decade or more from now, many Olympic athletes say they’re already in a downhill race against disappearing winters.
You can feel that desperate chase in the life of U.S. snowboardcross athlete Alex Deibold, who won a bronze medal at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. He’s among a growing number of Olympians speaking out on climate change as they see weather conditions for skiing, sliding and ice sports gradually melting away.
The 33-year-old moved to Utah full time two years ago, and his Olympic dreams have made him a witness to vanishing glaciers in the Alps, akin to islands swallowed by the rising sea. He’s seen slushy and sometimes dangerous course conditions and tournaments canceled due to a lack of snow. New weather wild cards seem to emerge every season, even at once-reliable training venues.
“We have to travel to the ends of the earth, to the bottom of the world to Tierra del Fuego in Argentina or the high glaciers in Switzerland,” Deibold told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We do a training camp in Saas Fee, Switzerland, and just what we’ve seen in the glacier receding ... it’s terrifying."
Salt Lake City is now a candidate for the Winter Games in 2030 or 2034. And its bid coincides with an increasing focus on how Olympic sports are being affected by a changing climate — and what the Olympic movement can do about it.
“Climate change is very much on the minds of the people in the Olympic movement,” said Fraser Bullock, a former 2002 Salt Lake Olympic organizer who now serves as co-chairman of the latest exploratory committee. “They are keeping a very close eye on it.”
Studies suggest Utah’s far-future forecasts for snow — or at least temperatures persistently cold enough to make artificial snow — remain good decades into the future due to its bounty of high-elevation, north-facing ski slopes in the Wasatch Mountains.
That geography, in fact, could mean Utah is one of the last places on Earth where skiing remains viable, scientists say. And that is likely to boost Salt Lake City’s chances as a future host, even as winter recreation in other parts of the world is showing signs of decline.
‘A small question’
The International Olympic Committee could begin forming a panel for its winter host selection process as early as this fall, with a final choice potentially years away. Much depends on how the IOC, its U.S. counterparts and Olympic sponsors decide to balance a second Games on American soil around the Summer Olympics scheduled in Los Angeles for 2028.
Right now, both on paper and at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Utah capital city’s prospects for another Olympics stack up well — not least because of sky-high local support for the Games and existing sports venues in Park City, Kearns and Midway that remain in good shape.
But for activists such as Mario Molina, who heads a Boulder, Colo.-based climate-advocacy group Protect Our Winters and organizes winter sports fans and athletes to the cause, the urgency of the climate crisis has escalated far beyond worries over the Olympics or even the long-term survival of winter sports.
“Scientists are telling us that we have 12 years to completely change the way that we think about energy, transportation and agriculture to get the world on a path to a warming scenario under two degrees Celsius, or the consequences could be so catastrophic that our computer models can’t even begin to show us the potential chaos,” Molina said.
“When we realize the magnitude of the challenge in front of us,” he said, “who might be able to host an Olympics is a small question.”
Action through sports
Much has changed in the Olympic movement since Utah last took the spotlight for two weeks in February 2002.
The IOC has sought to streamline bidding, make site selection more transparent and collaborative and create Games that are compact, less expensive and easier on the environment. It also recently allied itself with the U.N.’s Sports for Climate Action Initiative, aimed at driving concrete climate policies guided by the Paris climate agreement.
“Addressing climate change is everyone’s responsibility, and the IOC treats it very seriously — as an organization, as the owner of the Olympic Games and as the leader of the Olympic movement,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the time.
“Sport is about action,” Bach said, “and today the world needs urgent action to limit the rise of global temperatures.”
Unreliable snow and warm winters are not only threatening winter sports, the IOC said, but also pose challenges to summer sports athletes, event organizers and spectators with unpredictable weather patterns and hotter temperatures.
Ironically, a recently published scientific study indicates those same trends may help Salt Lake City by magnifying the advantages of its high-elevation terrains as other past Olympic host cities warm.
The shortlist will get shorter
Nearly a year before the U.S. Olympic Committee named Salt Lake City as its candidate for a future Winter Olympic and Paralympic bid, Canadian researchers published a study on 19 Winter Olympic cities, including Pyeongchang, South Korea, host in 2018, and Beijing, selected for 2022.
As The Tribune reported last year, scientists at the University of Waterloo in Ontario projected weather and temperatures under two scenarios: one that assumed no change in the current growth of greenhouse gases and another that saw the world’s governments lower emissions.
With no change, nine of the host sites were projected to be at risk for being too warm for the Games by 2050. That included Vancouver, Sochi, and the alpine cities of Grenoble in France and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany.
By 2080, the number of risky or unreliable host cities under that scenario rose to 13 of the 19.
Cutting down current rates of greenhouse gas emissions helped the picture somewhat. Eight former Winter Olympic cities would be at risk or unable to host a Winter Games by 2050. Nine would be risky or unreliable by 2080.
The outlook for Salt Lake City, meanwhile, remained suitably cold.
All but one of the outdoor skiing and sliding venues, including those at Utah Olympic Park in Park City, were forecast to be usable under all the study’s scenarios — with one caveat. Utah’s capital probably would have to stage the Paralympics just a week after the Winter Games closed instead of the usual two weeks or more.
The lower-elevation Soldier Hollow venue in Midway, the 2002 site for Olympic cross-country skiing and biathlon events, would be vulnerable to a lack of snow, but venue managers are saying that could be overcome with snowmaking, a process that creates artificial snow by shooting tiny water droplets into freezing air.
Larry Dunn, a retired meteorologist who did forecasting for the 2002 Winter Games while at the National Weather Service, said Utah’s biggest challenge with ensuring good conditions for Olympic competition won’t be climate change, but instead, the wide variations in snowfall the state sees from season to season.
As an example, this 2018-2019 season has proved among the snowiest on record, with more than 5.125 million skier days and every Utah ski resort posting above-normal snowfall. By contrast, last year’s snow levels were nearly half as high.
“That variability from year to year is much, much greater than the changes that we expect due to climate change over the next 14 years,” Dunn said.
As a result, Utah’s Olympic boosters are building sophisticated worst-case scenarios into their early bid documents to convince the IOC that sports venues will have “superior snowmaking systems and operations."
“You have to send into play a certain number of contingency plans, then at least you’re prepared,” said Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, which has helped manage Utah’s Olympic venues and legacy since 2002. “The one thing that’s hard to predict is the weather.”
Athletes on the frontlines
Unpredictability due to weather is now a central part of professional snowboarding, according to Deibold, the Utah-based snowboardcross medalist, who ticks through a list of recent disruptions.
At the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, organizers had to bring in snow by helicopter and built a portion of the snowboardcross course out of scaffolding. The Games at Sochi in 2014 sparked controversy over how the halfpipe course was constructed and maintained. A high-profile World Cup event at Squaw Valley in 2015 was canceled due to lack of snow.
“These are the repercussions of not taking climate change seriously,” he said, “and doing everything we can in our power to make steps toward a cleaner energy future.”
U.S. cross-country skier Erik Bjornsen is a two-time Olympian from Winthrop, Wash. who’s been based in Anchorage for nine years. He said “conditions up here in Alaska are a lot more unpredictable. I just feel like there’s a lot more having to change plans. It’s harder.”
"It’s sad what winter used to be compared to what it is now,” said Bjornsen, who competed in Olympics in 2014 and 2018.
Winter Olympic sports are currently benefiting from a surge of new young fans and competitors, due partly to the introduction of new sports such as halfpipe. But Bjornsen and others warn of a long-term future when more fledgling athletes miss out on day-to-day exposure to wintry climes — and the opportunity to develop passions for cold-weather sports.
“There’s always going to be somewhere with snow,” he said, “but I worry about places that used to be where you’d practice on snow or cross-country skiing for enjoyment five months out of the year and they just don’t necessarily have that anymore.”
Molina, with the group Protect Our Winters, said more and more athletes are turning to activism and pressing for aggressive national policies on climate change. These include pushing for alternative energy, new caps and fees on carbon emissions and protecting public lands in the West such as Bears Ears in Utah and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge against oil and gas drilling.
“The reality is that the same forces that are threatening our public lands are also threatening the climate,” Molina said.
Taking up the banner
There are signs that welcoming a second Games in Salt Lake City could sway Utah toward becoming more carbon neutral.
According to IOC documents, the city’s Olympic plan already involves essentially recycling its existing venues at Utah Olympic Park, the Utah Olympic Oval and Soldier Hollow Nordic Center, reducing impacts by between 10% and 26% compared to building new sports complexes.
Bid organizers also tout to the IOC the use of renewable electricity by Park City, Salt Lake City, Moab and Summit County, all of which have goals to some day draw most or all their power from noncarbon sources. Backers of a second Olympics say they hope to use a future Games as a catalyst to hasten adoption of electric transit.
And if Salt Lake City were to get the Games for 2030, organizers have tentative plans to reuse vast amounts of equipment — everything from computers, TVs and trash cans to temporary seating — from the Los Angeles Games in 2028.
But, more crucially, Utah’s capital is telling the IOC it wants to produce a “climate-positive” Games, with the possibility of adopting an international reporting scheme to monitor the event’s carbon footprint and set a baseline for future Olympics.
Its exploratory report to the IOC even contemplates steps to make a Salt Lake City Olympic Games “carbon negative,” possibly through purchasing carbon offsets.
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who has pressed climate issues with her counterparts through the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said being in line for another Olympics could be “very helpful” over the next decade in moving the state to take action on climate change.
As the mayor put it, “Our city loves to lead."