China’s bizarre, industrial, dystopian, cyber-punk-esque ski jump is more than an Olympic novelty. It’s a foreboding vision of our oncoming climate crisis.
The 200-foot Big Air Shougang has been turning heads and sparking heated debate on social media ever since the Games began, for its striking placement next to cooling towers and decrepit-looking cement buildings, in the middle of a vast, brown, snowless expanse. The image is surreal, like a movie in which the residents of Earth continue blithely amusing themselves as their planet hurtles toward environmental catastrophe.
Which is, of course, not too far off the mark. The Winter Olympics, like so many other things, are profoundly threatened by climate change. Global atmospheric temperatures are rising, thanks to man-made pollutants called greenhouse gasses that trap heat in the atmosphere like a blanket. The warmer it gets, the harder it will be to engage in winter sports.
This year marks the first time that the Winter Games will be 100 percent reliant on artificial snow. It won’t be the last. One recent study found that by 2100, only one city in the entire world may be able to host the Winter Games (Sapporo, Japan). These aren’t the first Games to face a deficit of the white fluffy stuff, either. During the 2010 Games in Vancouver, Canada, organizers were forced to airlift snow to the slopes by helicopter, and haul in more on trucks.
The big air ski jump in Beijing symbolizes the climate crisis in other ways, too. China is the world’s No. 1 source of greenhouse gasses; a country with emissions that, in 2019, were found to equal all developed nations’ combined.
The big air jump’s eye-catching setting specifically reflects one of the biggest industrial sources of greenhouse gasses: steel. The cooling towers, which some social media users have likened to Homer Simpson’s power plant, are actually from a decommissioned steel mill. The plant was shuttered in 2008 to help clear China’s congested skies before the 2008 Summer Olympics. Overall, steel represents about 8 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and nobody has figured out a good, cost-effective way to lower that output in the future.
Of course, higher average global temperatures won’t just impact the games every four years. They’ll be a perennial problem that make it harder for athletes to train. Some are already speaking out about the problem.
“Finding reliable training and competition facilities has become a real puzzle,” Philippe Marquis, a two-time Winter Olympian and top freestyle skier, told the authors of a recent study on global warming and the Olympic Games entitled Slippery Slopes. “Athletes have to be more adaptable than ever before, trying to manage the variable conditions.”
Marquis said the issue is taking both a physical and mental toll on athletes.
“I've noticed an increase in mental health issues around snow sport athletes,” Marquis said. “We also see more injuries caused by the lack of practice on snow and the added pressure to perform when there is a window of opportunities. Athletes feel the urge to push their limits even if the conditions are suboptimal.”
Follow Greg Walters on Twitter.