Climate Change and World Ski Competition

Foreign Policy Brief #103 | By: Reilly Fitzgerald | December 10, 2023

Photo taken from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/

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The pinnacle of world ski racing is the FIS World Cup. The season begins in October on the glaciers of Sölden, Austria and ends at the end of March in Saalbach, Austria. The World Cup circuit takes athletes all over Europe and North America. As a winter sport, in the era of climate change, there are complications each season – races get canceled, postponed, or delayed with great frequency (in some cases hours or minutes before they are about to start, or in the middle of the race). This year, the men’s speed race circuit (the events known as downhill and super g) has been off to a rough start with two out of two downhill race events canceled due to weather. The first speed race was going to be a downhill held on the Zermatt-Cervinia track, the first course to begin and end in two different countries (Switzerland and Italy, respectively). Then, the second set of speed races on the calendar in Beaver Creek, Colorado, were canceled as well.

Analysis

Sports, such as ski racing are outdoors. As much as it contributes to climate change, and it does contribute, it also is a victim of it too. Winters are warming, and snowfall has reduced across Europe and North America. The reduction in winter precipitation has led to several ski areas across both continents shutting down, permanently. The World Cup circuit includes 45 race events held at over 20 different venues. There are four events that athletes, men and women separately, compete in: slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom (or super g, as it is called), and downhill. Super G and downhill are considered the ‘speed events’, these events are on courses that are more than a mile in length and need perfect conditions, as skiers may exceed 90 to 100 miles per hour.

However, the start to the speed event season has been a pretty slow one. So far, there have been two sets of races and they have both been canceled. The first, was two downhill races on the Zermatt-Cervinia course (which has athletes begin in Italy and end in Switzerland); and the second was in Beaver Creek, Colorado, for a pair of downhill races this past weekend. Both venues canceled their races due to weather conditions not allowing the races to proceed safely. Ironically enough, the races in Beaver Creek were canceled due to heavy snowfall and wind. The speed skiers are heading back to Europe for this weekend’s races in Val d’Isère, France.

Some athletes compete in all four of the disciplines on the World Cup schedule; these skiers are known as ‘all-rounders’. They keep track of the points they earn in all four disciplines and then the skier with the most points at the end of the season is the reigning Overall Champion. These skiers, with 45 races on the calendar, have the most grueling seasons; especially when looking from a travel and pollution standpoint.

Norwegian slalom skier, Henrik Kristoffersen, made headlines the other week when climate activists interrupted a World Cup slalom race in Gurgl, Austria; in fact, he had to be restrained from getting into a physical altercation with the protestors (instead, he decided to hurl snowballs at them). The protestors threw orange paint into the finishing coral which caused a significant delay to the race, and thus the light conditions changed and the final racers were at a significant disadvantage. Kristoffersen’s anger was not regarding the protest of climate change, which he thinks should be done civilly and through the ballot box, but that the protesters ruined the chances of an athlete earning a living by ruining their race chances.

The World Cup ski racing circuit is facing a crisis of conscience in some ways. The organizers, the athletes, the venues are all on the same page that climate change threatens the way of life for winter sports of all varieties; however, the alpine ski racing calendar is so jam-packed with fitting in 45 races between the end of October and the end of March that there is zero room for error when it comes to rescheduling races; or as some have proposed, an entire overhaul of the race season schedule to accommodate a later start to the season. According to DW News (a German organization), there has been criticism of ski racing in Austria, especially, as it relates to the preparation of glaciers for the purpose of ski racing. The Rettenbach Glacier which hosted the season opener had to be prepared with bringing in stored snow, and using excavators to remove the edge of the glacier as part of the preparations. The destruction of the environment is not only part of the logistics of ski racing through the numerous flights, car travel, and tourism that is produced; but also the preparation of the events themselves are not entirely eco-friendly.

According to DW News, again, climate scientists, such as Jules Boykoff at Pacific University in Oregon, suggest that the ability to even host Winter Olympic events in countries that are able to experience wintery conditions will be significantly reduced to about 10 nations by 2040. This has led to the proposal to rotate amongst those potential countries in the future; but there is a significant amount of hesitation by the citizens of these potential places. The Winter Olympics set to take place in 2026 hosted by Milan-Cortina, Italy, have already begun their preparations and have decided to not construct a new bobsleigh and luge track due to the protests of locals about the environmental impact this construction would cause, according to the Associated Press; this means those events could be hosted in Austria or Switzerland, it remains unclear still.

Ironically, as European cities debate their ability, or willingness, to host these events. Saudi Arabia, a known mega-investor in the world of modern sports, has won the bid to host the 2029 Pan-Asian Winter Games. They have invested $500 billion to create a futuristic mega-resort that will host skiers for three months of the year and other sports the rest of the year. The resort-city is called Trojena. It will be interesting to see how, if, or when, the World Cup ski racing circuit will make its way to this Saudi Arabian resort as Europe and North America face reduced snow totals and protestations from locals about the impacts of winter sports on glaciers, and other ecological impacts.

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