Salt Lake City could host more Winter Olympics as the world sees less snow

Climate change, IOC’s sustainable initiatives severely limiting the field of hosts for 2040 and beyond.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gather near the Olympic cauldron before it is lit up on the 20-year anniversary of the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Opening Ceremony at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

The assessment that International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach gave Friday regarding the number of places around the world that could be viable options for a Winter Games rotation was dismal.

But it appears Salt Lake City may be among the few remaining potential hosts.

[Related: Utah Olympic venues coming into focus as organizers get creative]

At a press conference following a meeting of the IOC executive board in Mumbai, India, Bach announced that a mere 10 sites would have enough snow to host a Winter Olympics at mostly existing venues beyond 2040. That revelation, he said, has given the committee a sense of urgency when it comes to finding a solution to keeping the Winter Games going in the face of climate change.

“From these numbers,” he said, “it becomes even clearer that we need to address very quickly these dramatic impacts of climate change on winter sport in the Winter Games.”

One of the ideas that has gained the most traction is a rotational system that would limit the Games to a handful of sites that would host once every 20-30 years. That field of candidates just shrank, however, as the result of two studies conducted by the IOC. One looked for sites that could host the Olympics using 80% existing venues, of which it found 15 spread across three continents. The second looked for sites that would have enough snow to host the Winter Games by the middle of this century. Of those 15, two wouldn’t have enough snow to host the Winter Olympics by 2040. A total of five wouldn’t have enough to host the Paralympics, which typically take place after the Olympic Games in March.

The IOC previously said the complexity of setting up for the Games prevents it from hosting the Paralympics before the Olympics.

Bach said the IOC is looking at options beyond the rotation system for extending winter.

“The Future Host Commission has already started to address this very concerning situation,” he said. “This implies deliberations on a rotation system, the composition of the program, the different needs for sports on ice and snow and many others. …

“This is a very complex issue. And we need some more time to address this properly.”

The results of those studies don’t bode well for the future of winter sports. Yet they don’t land so hard in Salt Lake City, which some studies have predicted will see more winter precipitation and snow in coming years.

Bach declined to specify which 10 sites met the criteria. However, SLC-Utah CEO Fraser Bullock expressed his interest in having Salt Lake be a part of the rotation system last December when the IOC first introduced the idea.

“The rotation is actually an intriguing opportunity,” Bullock said, “because we have everything in place.”

The IOC’s bleak outlook actually may have benefitted Salt Lake City in another way as well. Because it wants to be able to focus on finding a system that will allow the Winter Games to continue well into the future, Bach said, the Future Host Commission proposed announcing the hosts for both the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympics at the 2024 IOC session. Until Friday, the IOC had not said whether it would announce beyond 2030 next year. The announcement of the dual award likely came as welcome news to Salt Lake City organizers who had hoped to learn their fate a year ago.

The Future Host Commission is expected to give its recommendations to the executive board by early November, Bach said. Bach said it is up to the commission whether it wants to recommend just one host per edition of the Games or give the executive board a couple of options. The executive board meets again in December and would need to have numerous contracts ready to sign with the future hosts one month before the next full session.

Interestingly, the next full session is scheduled for the days before the Paris Olympics. However, Bach did not say when the session would be when discussing the timeline. That may be because France is among the sites being considered to host the 2030 Games and, according to IOC bylaws, a host of a future Games cannot be announced on that country’s soil. Sweden and Switzerland have also expressed interest in hosting in 2030. Previous frontrunner Sapporo, Japan, as well as Vancouver have dropped out of contention for that edition of the Winter Games.

Salt Lake City organizers have expressed a preference for hosting in 2034 but said they “will be ready and willing” to host in 2030 if needed.