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Photography by Taylor Rees

Olympians Worry About a Warming World

Taylor Rees is a part of Team Climate, a group of five masters students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She and her peers have spent the last six months interviewing athletes on their experiences with climate change and its affects on the places where they train, live, and compete. They recently attended the Winter Games in Sochi where they worked to bring these personal climate stories to the mainstream media coverage.

“The Winter Olympics is the moment when the world remembers the pure joy of snow: the sudden disappearance of friction, the swoop and the glide and the rushing speed. And now it’s the moment when we need to recall just how fast winter itself is disappearing, and the work we must do if we’re going to have this much fun in decades ahead.” – Bill McKibben

This year’s Olympians regarded the 2014 winter games with a curious mixture of elation and dismay. Gold medals or no, these snowboarders, skiers, and racers shared a rare and wonderful experience—but they also saw that the future of these sports is in danger of melting away. For these athletes, climate change is a reality that threatens their livelihood and their passion. Now, a few are using their Olympic status as a platform for speaking out.

Sochi on Thin Ice

While you wouldn’t know it from the white-capped mountains and slopes of manmade snow, Sochi was melting. Spectators, some in T-shirts and shades, sloshed through mud puddles. Overall, temperatures were a good ten degrees warmer than average.

“I don’t know if it’s snow or mud,” said U.S. Nordic skier Taylor Fletcher of the tracks that were more brown than white. The slopestyle and half-pipe venues were slushy and dangerous, alarming some, like snowboarder Shaun White (who subsequently bowed out) and causing others to leave with injuries instead of medals. Only 31 of the 49 female alpine skiers were able to finish their course. Swiss skier Laura Gut said, “There is no snow at the bottom. It’s not funny anymore. This is a disaster, it was a shame for everybody.”

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Photograph by Taylor Rees

Winter Sports in a Changing World

Given that this January was the fourth warmest in the history of, well, Januarys, these dicey conditions were not unexpected—especially for athletes who have competed in slushy snow all over the world. At most venues, all-natural snow is now a thing of the past.

Cross-country skier Andy Newell says that several pre-Olympic skiing and snowboarding events were canceled because of warm weather, “something that has been a consistent problem both in Central Europe and Scandinavia.”

Skiers like Noah Hoffman say that training is often limited to a 2-kilometer loop. “It’s basically too warm to make snow in a lot of places our events are held,” he says, so “dirty” snow is often trucked in from hundreds of kilometers away.

Now, climate change is a spectre that haunts Olympics past and present. During the 2010 Vancouver games, the warmest Olympics ever, emergency snow was helicoptered in. A recent study predicts only six of the previous 19 winter Olympic sites could be viable to host the games by the end of this century.

“It’s not hard to imagine a future where sliding sports are unsustainable, due to dwindling winters, lack of athletes, and the tremendous cost of building and maintaining venues,” says Kyle Tress, a U.S. skeleton racer.

Olympians Speak Out

“As athletes, we owe it to ourselves to recognize the danger climate change poses to our sports, our communities, and our species,” says Tress. “It goes beyond what is right or best for us as competitors. It’s about what we must do to protect our unique events, so that future generations may enjoy them as much as we do.”

“Athletes need to be a united front,” said mogul skier Hannah Kearney. “We rely on mountains and snow for our sport, for our livelihood and for what we’re passionate about… As a result, we could be a force of positive change.”

Andy Newell was “tired of waiting for politics to catch up to the climate impacts now being felt worldwide.” So, with the help of the nonprofit organization Protect Our Winters, he got over 100 winter athletes to sign a petition calling for world leaders to address climate change at the UN climate talks in 2015. It’s a small step, Newell says, but “everyone can take action, and everyone has a voice.”

For many athletes, however, there’s a delicate balance to be struck between competition and advocacy. Biathlete Tim Burke knows that this is good opportunity to raise awareness on climate change. “But this is also tricky situation for athletes because we have spent the last four years preparing for these competitions and this is for sure our biggest focus.”

The games themselves are hardly carbon-neutral. Athletes travel constantly, competing all over the world. And as temperatures rise, refrigeration and snow manufacturing becomes increasingly energy intensive. “When I fly 40,000 miles on an airplane, its hard for me to say I’m green,“ says Kearney.

Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity. “I can’t reverse climate change,” Kearney says, “but awareness is a start.”

The platform for change exists. Whether it’s at the Olympic stage, or future world cups and competitions, these athletes are continuing to speak out, acknowledging their own limits and impacts, but not bowing out of the conversation because of hypocrisy. We all play a role. And theirs is worth listening to.