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Sustainability at the Winter Olympics

By Rider University Eco-Rep Muriel Baki

Originally Published: February 16, 2022

While Rider University students are gathering for basketball games, track meets and wrestling matches, they are also joining the rest of the world to watch the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Winter Olympic Games is a major international winter multi-sport event held once every four years, but this year will be the first year in history with 100% manufactured ice and snow.

The Games have been held since 1924, when they were first held in Chamonix, France. The Games are a powerful demonstration of unity, created as a symbol of international cooperation. This year’s Games are currently being held in Beijing, China.

Junior musical theater major Natalie Leclair said, “It’s always so impressive to see the way such a large-scale event comes together, and the number of moving pieces that come together to pull it off.”

These Games have been touted by China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as the “greenest and cleanest” Games ever, promoting them as entirely carbon neutral. However, some experts and activists are criticizing the Games for maintaining certain unsustainable practices. These concerns include climate clash, trash disposal, and water usage. To create the environment required for the ski hills alone, the equivalent of five Olympic swimming pools of water will be used.

The Winter Olympics by their very nature requires a great deal of ice and snow for its events to take place. However, snow reliability is declining around the world as climate change leads to shifting weather patterns and increasingly unpredictable snowfall. This has caused difficulties in previous Olympic Games, as coordinators research weather and create environments suitable for the Games. This year’s Olympic sites are located in Yanqing and Zhangjiakou, which have notably arid climates.

Without natural precipitation to create the ice rinks, ski hills and more, the IOC has relied on artificial snow and ice to form the competition arenas. Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg, estimates that snowmaking for the Games’ two outdoor venues will require up to 500 million gallons of water. As the worldwide water supply dwindles, climate rights activists have criticized the usage of artificial precipitation to this scale for being wasteful. The creation of these venues has reportedly forced water diversion from local watersheds and erosion of natural habitats. Plans were abandoned after a strong environmentalist response to planned ski runs running through the core of the Songshan Nature Reserve, a protected forest ecosystem in Beijing.

The organizers of these Games have promoted them as sustainably planned and executed, using both hydrogen-powered vehicles and renewable energy sources. But questions have been raised as to the validity of these claims, to promote the reputation of the Games. This phenomenon is known as greenwashing and is not uncommon in the promotion of large spectator events and festivals.

However, this Olympic Games is certainly a step forward from previous venues, where the negative environmental impact wasn’t a consideration of the development of such venues. For instance, the 2016 Sochi Olympics caused lasting damage due to toxic waste disposal and construction-related erosion. This year measures will also be taken to offset the carbon footprint of the Games and more consideration has been given to the waste disposal practices and energy sources of the Games.

Junior musical theater major, Jasmine Bassham said, “I feel like the Olympics are the perfect opportunity for world leaders to make an effort in the fight against climate change, to show the world that sustainability is important and possible.” This year’s carbon-neutral Games set the stage for future innovation to increase sustainability in the presentation of the Olympics.

As spectators, athletes and organizers anticipate what future Olympic Games may look like, it greatly depends on the world we live in. Some wonder if there will even be resources to hold the Games in twenty years. While natural disasters, destabilizing environments and approaching climate deadlines are staggering, Beijing 2022 is a statement on the shifting worldwide attitude towards climate change from a distant idea to a looming reality. Their response, while not perfect, is a step towards a future where the Olympics can exist. This future is possible with technological advancements and more sustainable practices, according to this month’s green film, “2040.” Take an optimistic look at the future of sustainability and a dive into the technology and potential possibilities for what life will be like by the year 2040 with a worldwide commitment to our planet. Join us in the Rue Auditorium (Sweigert Hall 115) on Feb 21 and 22 at 7 p.m.

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