How climate change threatens the future of the Olympics



Global warming is making it difficult to organize sporting tournaments, but it’s an even greater threat to small local clubs. Meanwhile, Big Sport is taking the lead in climate hypocrisy.


This is a good time for last year’s snow. Not long ago, this term was used to describe something that has no meaning, that doesn’t concern us, that has no value. As the temperature has risen, the situation has changed. The 2014 Olympics in Sochi didn’t happen on the freshest of snow, nor did countless World Cups in alpine, freestyle and cross-country skiing, and ski jumping. We’re getting better and better at preserving last year’s snow; snowfarming is helping winter sports and the resorts that live off of skiers and snowboarders to hang on. But only to hang on.

Since 1924, the Winter Olympics have been held in 21 cities. Scientists are sounding the alarm that even with a reduction in greenhouse gases, by 2050 eight of them will be unable to host the event. It’s not just about the games themselves. Organizing an event once every four years isn’t a problem. But who’s going to compete if there’s no place to train? When mass schussing and trekking on skis becomes impossible, the number of professionals will drop. Perhaps downhill and cross-country skiers don’t face the fate of potters, typesetters and saddlers, but their situation is certainly unclear. “You can essentially kiss winter sports goodbye in the not-too-distant future,” said Niclas Svenningsen of the UN. “You can basically only have winter sports in high-altitude alpine regions for a very limited period of time in the year.”

So the sports business is one of the victims of the climate catastrophe. But at the same time, they’re not doing much to counteract it.

The poorest will pay first

“It’s clear that the 2020 games shouldn’t be held in the middle of summer,” Professor Makoto Yokohari of Tokyo University said a few months ago. After the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the world’s largest sporting event was postponed for a year, but was still planned for late July and early August. So Yokohari’s objection remains relevant.

It’s still possible to attempt to understand the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) choice of Tokyo as the athletes’ destination: it made the decision in 2013, when climate awareness was lower. But since then, knowledge has increased – along with the temperature. Nobody considered changing the dates, even though already six decades ago it was clear that Tokyo is too hot and humid in the summer. That’s precisely why, in 1964, the Olympics in the Japanese capital were held in October. The difference is that back then the IOC wasn’t as dependent on money from television, and America’s NBC (which is paying $7.75 billion for the rights to broadcast the games in 2020–2032) didn’t want to hear about a change in the date. Because in October, the NFL’s American football season is in full swing, and Major League Baseball is reaching the climax of the season, both of which would definitely hit viewership. But in the summer, the games don’t have any competition.

So the Olympic authorities are concentrating on limiting the risk of tragedy. That’s no exaggeration, considering that last year in late July and early August the average temperature in Tokyo was 33°C (topping 40° on the hottest days), and humidity reached 80%. In just those two weeks, 200,000 people ended up in hospital as a result of the heat, of whom 70 died.

The gravity of the situation is best shown by how the marathons and walking events have been moved to Sapporo, Japan’s capital of winter sports. But it’s not clear why these competitions were chosen, while those sentenced to compete in the heat include long-distance swimmers (the water temperature in Tokyo Bay exceeds 30° in August), kayakers, golfers and all others who compete outdoors. After last year’s junior kayaking world championships – held in the same place where the Olympics will be – several competitors ended up being treated for heatstroke. “That was the warmest race I’ve ever done,” said the Tunisian Oussama Mellouli, a three-time Olympic medallist in swimming. “It felt good for the first two kilometres, then I got super overheated.”

The weather during those events was also a threat to the fans, which is why the IOC has earmarked as much as $92 million to fight the effects of the heat. That will pay for water curtains and cooling tents next to the venues. The fans were to receive head coverings and bottles of water to take into the stands. That’s new; earlier it was banned because of the risk of terrorism.

Let’s say it again: the Olympics are a party, so every four years people think something up, clench their teeth and introduce extraordinary measures. In fact, the IOC has announced that when choosing the next host of the games, it will take into account the changes caused by the climate catastrophe. Paris, which will welcome the athletes in 2024, and Los Angeles (2028) have time to prepare. Later organizers will be required not just to ensure the competitors have stadiums, fields, arenas and swimming pools, but also to guarantee something as basic as conditions for competing.

Everyday sporting life is a much greater challenge. That’s true here and now, not in some undefined future. In recent months, Hurricane Ciara caused the cancellation of football matches in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and England; heat forced the shortening and cancellation of bicycle races and interrupted tennis matches; floods destroyed pitches. Today, this last problem affects small stadiums, where amateurs or semi-professionals play. But first, such problems are adding up, and second, the destruction can be so great that it threatens the clubs’ very existence, which is important for their local communities. Tadcaster Albion from northern England, who play in the seventh league, estimated the costs of repairing its flooded field at close to £40,000. The club couldn’t afford it, and was threatened with bankruptcy. Its fans came to the rescue, organizing a crowdfunding campaign. Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and other football corporations with turnovers of hundreds of millions of euros wouldn’t even feel the costs of rebuilding a flooded pitch. And they’ll certainly be able to afford to defend against the effects of global warming. Here, sport reflects a more widespread phenomenon: according to a recent UN report, the consequences of the climate disaster will be felt fastest and most deeply by the poorest.

No plastic, but planes

At the start of the year, Olympique Lyon’s official Twitter account posted a picture of players boarding a plane that was to carry them to a match with Paris-Saint Germain. Lyon is barely 400 kilometres from the French capital, just two hours by train. French Green MEP Karima Delli described the clubs as: “The only ones who do not feel concerned by the climate emergency!”

And that’s not even the most drastic example. Parisian footballers also flew to a match with Dijon (300 kilometres, 1.5 hours by train). At the same time, the club’s bus drove that route empty – to pick them up from the airport. Real Madrid’s players have even flown to matches 200 kilometres away in Salamanca and Valladolid, emitting 2.7 tonnes of CO2 each time. If they had taken the train, it would have been 0.35 tonnes.

The clubs explain that they choose to fly because that gets the players to their destination in the best form. They cite the decade-old example of how the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption meant that Barcelona had to travel by bus to Milan for the Champions League semi-final with Inter. After 13 hours on the road, they lost 1:3. But this example contains more magical thinking than rational argument. That journey was organized at the last minute; if they had decided on ground transport earlier, it would certainly have been possible to ensure comfort for the players. Nobody is demanding that clubs give up air travel overnight, but they could significantly reduce it.

That’s important, because footballers spend almost as much time travelling as they do on the pitch. In recent decades, footballing authorities have been guilty of immoderation, increasing the number of games without considering the limitations of the human body and the calendar. In the early 1990s, there were eight teams in the group phase of the Champions League; now there are 32. The European Championships had eight teams; today, as many as 24. The World Cup brought together 24 teams; in 2026 there will be twice (!) as many. This has long since ceased making sporting sense, but the more matches, the more money from television, and the more participants there are, the happier the national associations are. And a happy association will gladly vote to re-elect the current authorities.

But organizing these bloated tournaments is hard, as demonstrated by the next European Championship (also postponed to next year), planned in 12 cities from Baku to Dublin, from Saint Petersburg to Rome. In the first phase alone, a Polish fan would have to travel at least 6000 kilometres (Warsaw-Dublin-Bilbao-Dublin). If they advance to the knockout stage, Jerzy Brzęczek’s players could end up in Budapest (another 2300 kilometres). The rulers of European football say that in flying here and there the players, fans and VIPs will produce 425,000 tonnes of CO2. But after the tournament ends, UEFA will pay to plant more than 10,000 trees in the host countries. Still, bearing in mind that the last tournament, held only on French pitches, was responsible for 517,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions, the estimates for next year’s event are, to put it lightly, optimistic, and according to climate activists, not credible. “Planting trees is great, but planting trees and then leaving does not resolve the problem,” said Andrew Welfle from the University of Manchester.

The championships spread out over a dozen European countries are one of many examples of football authorities’ thoughtlessness and lack of imagination. They’re capable of adopting pro-climate solutions only by chance.

Take the next World Cup in Qatar, which will be different from all previous ones. The first one on the Persian Gulf, the first one planned for November-December, and finally the first in such a small space. The longest distance between two stadiums is measured in the tens of kilometres, and they’re all connected by Metro lines, so this will be the first World Cup that’s not only plane-less, but also car-less. But it’s not like the satraps of football chose this location out of concern for the climate. They got millions in bribes from the Qatari authorities. (Thanks to investigations by German and British journalists, there isn’t the slightest doubt about this.) In fact, at the start they even insisted that the tournament would happen in the summer. They gave up on that only when it turned out that neither the fans nor the players could survive Qatar’s summer temperatures, which approach 50°C.

In many ways, the 2026 World Cup will be at the opposite end of the scale. The event has never been held over such a large area. The tournament in Canada, the US and Mexico will generate as much as 3.6 million tonnes of CO2. FIFA chose the hosts in mid-2018, when you had to be exceptionally knowledge-resistant not to notice what was happening.

It’s worth keeping an eye on football, because it sets the trends, and other sports copy its solutions unthinkingly. In the 21st century, the European championships have swelled in volleyball, handball and basketball. Tournaments organized everywhere and nowhere have become a regular occurrence. Strewn across four countries from Finland to Turkey and from France to Latvia, they force air travel, though there’s no reason not to organize these events in a smaller number of countries, over a smaller area.

To be clear: neither football nor sport in general is responsible for the climate disaster. Even if footballers, basketballers and volleyballers didn’t exist, the situation would be tragic. The point is the hypocrisy. The football corporations – starting with UEFA and FIFA, down to local clubs – have calculated that the fight against global warming is good for their image, so every so often they announce that they maintain pitches using water-conserving techniques, they don’t sell food in plastic packaging at their stadiums, they equip the players with green tops to remind us of the environment. Then they pack them into planes to fly to a match just down the road.

Bailing out with a teaspoon

In the Pyrenees, they say they’ve swung it. The authorities of Luchon-Superbagnères, which lies just above the Spanish border and a bit below Toulouse, sent helicopters to fight the climate catastrophe. Last winter, there was so little snow on the slopes (it would have been difficult with the temperature hovering around 10°C), that the resort had lost its reason to exist. When the school vacation season was approaching, local authorities rented a helicopter to bring 50 tonnes of snow to the summit. In the local budget, the operation will look like a great deal: the cost came in at €6000; without snow, the losses would have been tens of times higher.

Ecologist Patrick Jimena wrote on Facebook that this calls to mind bailing out a boat with a teaspoon during a tsunami. But this bon mot doesn’t communicate the essence of the matter, which is that sending a helicopter with an internal combustion engine into the mountains will mean that in a few years it will have to fly even higher to find snow. And someday snow won’t be found, even on the highest peak.

The way of thinking found in Luchon-Superbagnères is also in effect at the highest echelons of the sporting business. There are those who count on outdoor disciplines surviving thanks to air-conditioning. They completely fail to notice that cooling equipment only worsens the situation.

Others count on artificial snow saving winter sports. Of course, we’re better and better at making it; we don’t even need temperatures below freezing, but we do need water. And that’s also running out, on a micro and a macro scale. Today, Poland is one of the countries with the lowest water resources in the EU; according to Science, in 2050 as many as five billion people may have difficulty accessing drinking water.

It’s just as naive to count on bringing all winter sports indoors. There are plenty of covered ski slopes, in Dubai, Madrid, New Jersey and in Druskininkai near the Polish border. The greatest number has been built in China, which is preparing to organize the next Winter Olympics. But they’re all still just a curiosity; they won’t rescue professional competition.

So once again, it turns out that sport is no better and no worse than the environment in which it functions. Awareness of the ongoing climate disaster is widespread; we feel its effects every day. But nothing is changing: we’re putting more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; in the centre of Europe, elections are being won by groups that pretend the problem doesn’t exist; in the autumn, a climate denier may be elected for a second term as US president. The sporting authorities – regardless of whether we’re talking about football, the Olympics or basketball – are also at the stage of ‘it’ll work out somehow’. And actually, nobody knows what more would have to happen for this ‘somehow’ to turn deadly. Not just for athletes, trainers and fans, but also for the organizers themselves.

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.

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