Spiralling costs and melting snow: What’s the Winter Olympics’ future?

An increasingly hotter planet and rising costs are threatening the future of the Winter Games, as host cities struggle with a lack of investment – and of snow.

On 31 July, the deadline for companies to submit their bid to build Italy’s costly new bobsled track for the 2026 Winter Olympics came and went. 

And not a single construction company came forward.  

The announcement was made by a puzzled SIMICO, the Italian company put in charge of the handling of all Olympics structure, who said that it will now be forced to look on the market for companies able to take on the job.

“It’s not particularly surprising that nobody wants to build a new bobsled track,” said Madeleine Orr, a sport ecologist based in the Institute of Sport Business at Loughborough University London, citing how controversial the project has been since the cities of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo were awarded the honour – and the burden – of hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics.

“I know that the organisers of the Olympics have been concerned about how climate change is going to impact this event,” she added.

In the last two years, the efforts that the cities have undertaken to prepare hosting the Games have also been criticised by the Italian press as too costly and environmentally unsustainable, with many pointing out that the structures built ad hoc for the event will have no use after the end of it.

The new bobsled track – which will have to be built from scratch after the demolition of the old one – is estimated to cost between €93 million and €120 million, according to Veneto’s president Luca Zaia. It will have to be built fast, as the completed track, which can also be used for the skeleton and luge competitions, must be ready by December 2024 for the first test event ahead of the Olympics.

The changing face of the Winter Olympics

Both the Winter Olympics and the Summer Olympics are facing a few of the same issues when it comes to climate change, Orr told Euronews, “where weird weather patterns, which are becoming the new normal, are increasing.”

“In the past you could expect the winter to be cold and the summer to be hot,” Orr added. “Now we’re seeing warm winters and even hotter summers, and it’s getting to the point where in many cases it’s becoming unsafe to compete in those conditions.”

In the case of winter sports, the impact of climate change is even more dramatic. “It’s getting really hard to maintain the track or bobsled,” Orr said. “Most tracks, all except one in St Moritz, are manmade and use artificial ice and snow, so they are supported by energy systems that can do a good job of keeping them relatively cold. But even with all the technology, if you get a really hot day, it’s going to be very challenging.”

Most of the recent Winter Olympic host sites have had artificial snow – a very common supplement normally used in most ski resorts around the world, Walker Ross, a lecturer in Sport Management & Digital Marketing at the University of Edinburgh, told Euronews.

“Every ski resort you go to has additional artificial snow as they’re trying to remain open for as long as it’s profitable, it’s a very common practice,” he said. “But in Beijing [host of the last Winter Olympics], every single snowflake was artificial. And I hope that’s not going to be the trend going forward.”

But that could in fact be a possible solution, especially as the number of cities that can feasibly host the Winter Olympics is expected to drop dramatically in the near future.

Daniel Scott, a geography professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, led a 2022 study that found that, if we don’t cut emissions significantly, by the end of the century only one of 21 former Winter Olympics host cities may have the ideal temperatures to hold the Games.

“If you take the projections for the global average rise in temperature that we’re seeing from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you see that as many as half of those cities which hosted the Winter Olympic in the past will no longer be able to host the event in the future,” Walker Ross said.

These communities won’t have the temperatures to host these kinds of sports, Ross said – though that might not stop them from hosting, as long as they rely on artificial snow. 

The lost legacy of the Games

Countries have always hosted the Olympics – Winter or Summer – for the clear benefits that this traditionally brings, including a boost in tourism, widespread sports enthusiasm, and the opportunity to build key infrastructure that will be used for decades to come. 

That might no longer be happening in the future, as critics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezza fear.

“Whatever we are building right now or have built might not be usable in the future,” Ross said. “If you go out of your way to build a giant winter sports complex, it might not be climatically viable in the future. If our planet warms up by 1.5C or 3C in the future, that infrastructure, that legacy, that goodwill will be lost in the long term, because we might not be able to enjoy that sport.”

In places like Rio de Janeiro, Ross said, sports venues were built in low-lying regions that are expected to flood from time to time, with these events expected to become more frequent in the future.

“Whatever we thought we were doing by building the Olympics right now, thinking that in 50 years we’ll still be able to remember these great times that we had in our city because we’ll still be able to do X, Y, and Z – that might not be possible if the scenario doesn’t change.”

‘Throwing money at the problem’

Increasing costs and the devastating impact of the climate crisis are problems that have now proven able to make or break sports mega-events.

The Australian state of Victoria recently pulled out of hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2026, saying that the cost was simply too high – leaving the future of the competition in limbo. Adding to the games’ woes, the Canadian province of Alberta cancelled its bid to host the 2030 Commonwealth Games, mentioning its rising costs.

The estimated cost of hosting the games, at C$2.7bn (over €1.8bn), was a burden “too high for the province to bear,” said Tourism and Sports Minister Joseph Schow. The decision leaves the Commonwealth Games with no clear host for 2030.

Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world with a haunting track record of human rights violations, has secured some of the biggest sports events on the planet in the coming years, as it’s simply one of the few willing hosts who can rely on significantly large pockets.

In 2029, the country will host the Asian Winter Games – despite the fact that snow is rare in Saudi Arabia. 

“The number of communities that have the capacity to host these events and have the climate to host these events is shrinking quite rapidly,” Ross said. “As these communities lack the climate to host this event, you might start turning to anybody who’s going to be willing to give you the money to pull this thing off,” he added.

Orr thinks that, in the case of the Winter Games, “there’s going to have to be a little step back from the really big event, the big spectacle, because many of the places that have a climate that can accommodate this don’t necessarily have enough tourism infrastructure to host something at that calibre.” 

“If we can shift our minds a little bit around what the Olympics looks like for the Winter Games, and make it a slightly smaller event, then all of a sudden it becomes an option to host it in much smaller tourist towns,” Orr said.

But shrinking or cutting these events might not be what the IOC wants, Ross added, both for profits and for the sake of expanding access to sports, the IOC’s mission. “I worry about the kind of future the Olympics will have if it just turns into a question of who has the money to throw at this problem, instead of asking ourselves how to radically rethink what these events look like and where they get hosted.”

What future for the Winter Olympics?

No host city has yet been named for the 2030 Winter Olympics, though the IOC said that Salt Lake City, Barcelona, and Sapporo are all in the running.

But there might not be so many options in the future. The agency said it’s considering rotating the Winter Olympics among an approved pool of climate-reliable hosts, as cities might need to meet new temperature criteria as the impact of the climate crisis continues exacerbating.

The IOC is currently weighing a proposal that would require host cities to have had an average minimum temperature of below 0C for snow competition venues over a 10-year period by the time of holding the Games.

Another solution being investigated by the agency is the option of awarding both the 2030 and the 2034 Games to the same city, but no concrete decisions have yet been taken.

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