Welcome to the Dystopian Olympics!

The Beijing games offer a bleak glimpse of a desolate future without winter

By Paul Rauber

February 9, 2022


Austria's Lara Wolf trains for the women's freestyle skiing big air competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics in February 2022. | Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP Photo

You can grant the organizers of the Beijing Olympic Games 2022 this. They didn’t try to sugarcoat the obvious lack of what one might think of as the number one prerequisite for a winter Olympiad: snow. It’s not clear how they might do that anyway. Spray-paint the brown sides of Xiaohaituo Mountain on the edge of the Gobi Desert white? Instead, they built miles of pipeline to connect to a distant reservoir and fired up the snow guns. In what the International Ski Federation says is likely to be a hallmark of future winter games, the snow is entirely artificial. Some athletes have praised its texture (different sports get different qualities of artificial powder), but others have come to grief, like Mikaela Shiffrin’s disqualifying fall seconds into her first pass of the women’s giant slalom. 

The Xiaohaituo downhill course, however, looks like a Sierra Club Wilderness Calendar compared to the Big Air Shougang, the freestyle skiing hill built on the site of a shuttered coal-fired steel mill in West Beijing. Skiers performing quad cork 1980s do so against the cyberpunk backdrop of the plant's gigantic cooling towers. The plant, ironically, was closed in 2008 in an attempt to reduce the dangerous levels of air pollution during the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

China, which has now surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of planet-warming carbon dioxide, is making clear the shape of winter games to come if we continue on the fossil fuel path. A new study by Climate Central looked at all the winter venues since 1950 and found that under a high-emission scenario, only Sapporo, Japan, will be reliably cold enough by 2080. Beijing is already 9°F hotter than it was in 1950. Luckily for the Olympic organizers, at least this February is better than last year, when temperatures were 40° above normal. 

Kirsty Muir of Britain lands during the women's freestyle skiing big air qualification round on February 7. | Photo by AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Alpine skiing at the National Alpine Ski Center, Yanqing, China. | Photo by Michael Kappeler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

A ski run lined with artificial snow at the National Alpine Ski Center. | Photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo