IOC concerns as Winter Olympics approaches the melting point - Hindustan Times
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IOC concerns as Winter Olympics approaches the melting point

ByRutvick Mehta
Oct 20, 2023 08:03 PM IST

The International Olympic Committee its Session in Mumbai spoke about the damage climate change and rising temperatures can do to the Winter Games in particular

Summing up the threat of climate change to the Olympics at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Mumbai, Karl Stoss, chairman of IOC’s Future Host Commission for the Winter Games, told the gathered members of the apex body: “Don't look away any longer.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach gestures while speaking during the second day of the 141st IOC session in Mumbai(REUTERS)
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach gestures while speaking during the second day of the 141st IOC session in Mumbai(REUTERS)

Their studies, coming on the back of the Copernicus Climate Change Service’s data that showed June, July, August and September in 2023 were the hottest globally on record, appear to suggest so. The impact of climate change on Winter Olympics is more alarming and imminent, but the Summer Games — India has shown interest to host in 2036 — are not entirely immune to it either.

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Sensing the need to “address this dramatic impact of climate change”, as IOC president Thomas Bach put it, the IOC Future Host Commission conducted a study regarding the hosting of Winter Olympics. A couple of criteria were outlined. One, to identify countries with the most existing venues, and two, if they would be climate reliable until at least the middle of the century. Climate reliable means “projected average temperatures should be below zero degrees Celsius during the period of the Games”, said Stoss.

The study found that there are 15 countries across three continents that have at least 80% of the required venues. Of them, by 2040, two will not have the climate reliability to host the Winter Olympics in February and five will not for the Winter Paralympics in March. IOC thus stares at the pool of potential hosts being reduced to 10, with that number likely to fall further by the middle of the century, the study noted.

It is why the IOC is considering double allocation of the 2030 and 2034 Winter Olympics to buy more time in addressing the complexity of the issue.

“Climate change is already having an effect on sports,” Bach told select media in Mumbai last week. “In particular winter sports, where the lack of snow is already leading to a shift — from the sports of snow, which means outdoor sports, to sports on ice, which means indoors.”

According to the IOC study, there is likely to be an increase of over 2 degrees Celsius by 2050 at the 97 ski stations evaluated for snow reliability. Dependance on artificial ice compared to natural snow could, therefore, increase. Producing artificial ice will, again, have environmental repercussions because it requires huge amounts of water and energy consumption.

“We need to understand how to innovate the systems behind Winter Olympics and look at new systems to reduce consumption. And possibly modify the sports to be more organic with the environment,” said Andrea Francisi, the Chief Games Operations Officer of the next Milano Cortina Winter Olympics in 2026.

Spread across different cities and approximately 22,000 sq km in Italy, the Milano Cortina Games will add temporary fields of play on existing ice venues, said Francisi. Such is the direct correlation and consequence of weather on a Winter Olympics that even as their “dream is to not use any artificial snow” for the Games, that will depend on the temperatures in 2026.

“We should be ready for anything, and then it depends on what happens the previous day. If we have tons of snow, we don’t have to use any artificial snow. In case we have sunny days before, we will have to use our artificial system,” Francisi said.

‘Consider best period for hosting’

Francisi believes the Winter Olympics ecosystem must keep a close eye on “what is happening over the next few years” with climate change. “The period of winter season, year by year, is going down. For the next Winter Olympics we need to take into consideration the best moment to host the Games,” he added.

“For Summer Games, it’s exactly the opposite situation. But even there, timing and period of hosting is very important. You have to take into consideration the climate situation of every country,” Francisi said.

Bach highlighted “climate change legacy” and “environmental protection” as among the factors IOC will consider before awarding future Summer Olympics (note, India).

Sports in those Games, too, are feeling the heat. Marathon and race-walking events for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 were forced to be shifted out of the Japanese capital due to rising temperatures. At the Budapest World Athletics Championships in August, the women’s 5,000m heats was moved to the evening due to excessive heat. The US Open in New York enforced a heat policy during the second week.

‘Fundamental revisit of calendar’

Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics (WA), brought numbers of his own at the IOC Session. He said 70% of their athletes in a recent poll conducted by WA “indicated a need for climate change attitudes to alter immediately"; three-fourths of them believe “it already impacts dramatically on their ability to compete and train”. The only back-to-back Olympic 1,500m champion urged IOC to focus on “internal and autonomous resolution”.

“It needs a fundamental revisit of the calendar, because there are sports with disciplines that are really unsustainable during times of the year when we would normally be presenting our championships to the world,” Coe said.

Bach responded by stating that the “response from international federations, to put it diplomatically, has not been enthusiastic in entering such discussions”, adding that some weren’t even ready to share their planned calendars with IOC.

“In the long term, we can say the Olympic Games should happen in August, (which) I doubt,” Bach said earlier. “If we move, the whole calendar must move. Athletic meets must move. Tennis Grand Slams must move. So, this is a nightmare. But we have to address this.”

A Future Host Commission for Summer Games will study whether a shift in the sports calendar will be enough to address the issue or “whether it must be complemented by a stronger shift to indoor sports”, Bach said. But instances like marathons being held at midnight (at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, where 28 of the 68 runners did not finish) or starting earlier than usual (at the 2024 Paris Olympics) points to climate change already compelling sports bodies to act and impacting sports in general.

“I don't know where it ends,” Bach said.

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