No Shroud in Turin
While the Times piece concentrates on the generally blase attitude Italians are displaying toward the games, the snow concerns are reminiscent of the hand wringing that attended the 2002 games in Salt Lake. In an effort to increase awareness of global warming, many environmental groups used the occasion to heighten awareness by focusing on the precarious future of the Winter Olympiad. The World Resources Institute, for one, put a global warming exhibit in the Salt Lake Visitors Center. A note on the organization's website read: "Ski while you can, Salt Lake! Global warming could move the Olympics to Nome."
It's no joke. In 2003, Turin hosted a World Conference on Sport and the Environment, prompting the United Nations Environment Programme to issue a release entitled "Many Ski Resorts Heading Downhill as a Result of Global Warming." Among the first casualties will be the low-lying slopes of Kitzbuhel, Austria, site of the legendary Hahnenkamm downhill. The world famous resort is scarcely 3,000 feet above sea level. According to the UN report, that snow line could rise nearly 1,000 feet over the next 30 to 50 years. Switzerland could lose 70 percent of its glaciers over the same period.
Of course, the winter sports industry contributes to the problem, both in terms of the traffic in brings to the mountains and the energy required to run lifts and make snow. The Olympics, which encourages worldwide travel and inevitably touches off a spate of rapid, large-scale development, only exacerbates the environmental impact. Which leads to the question: Can the Olympics be made sustainable? Many think not, arguing that, at the very least, the games should be hosted at existing venues rather than demanding new infrastructure every four years. Others argue that the games can be used to showcase sustainability concerns and highlight greener development.
For their part, the organizers at Turin insist they are taking steps to make the games climate-neutral, in part by offsetting the carbon output with forestry and alternative energy projects. And, Beijing, home to some of the world's worst air quality, has vowed to clean up its act in time to host the 2008 Summer Games -- a monumental effort, to be sure, and one that probably wouldn't have been undertaken without the extra impetus of the games.
Over at Grist, sustainability gurus, John Elkington and Mark Lee, see a huge potential upside in such examples and hope that future games can become "powerful incubators that make life in Olympic cities more livable." Let's hope so. In the meantime, you might want to take the World Resources Institute's advice to heart: Ski while you can.
For more on skiing and the environment, see this earlier post.