Olympics

The 2022 Olympics Will Be An Environmental Disaster

Despite what China's president says, having Winter Games where there's no snow is a bad idea

Olympics
Chinese delegates celebrate their environmental disaster — Getty Images
Jan 23, 2017 at 10:33 AM ET

While recently visiting Olympic headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, and touring the venues in Beijing and nearby resort city of Zhangjiakou that will host the 2022 Winter Olympics, Chinese president Xi Jinping seemed to make a series of statements at odds with reality.

“China will prepare and host the 2022 Games in a green, sharing, open and clean-fingered manner,” Xi apparently said, according to a Reuters translation of remarks paraphrased by the state news agency Xinhua, which is as dizzying a provenance of a quote as one can find and indication of how hard good information can be to find out of that country.

Xi also pledged—well, probably did because these comments follow the same byzantine transcription history—to scale way back on the exorbitant costs of past Olympics, including the $40 billion Beijing spent on the 2008 Summer Games and the $51 billion Russia lavished on the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Indeed, Xi apparently claimed, the 2022 budget is only $3 billion.

“All projects must show the principle of the thrifty and intensive use of resources and the most effective use of resources,” Xi is said to have said, apparently adding without further explanation: “Don’t go in for grandiose projects or rashly put up establishments.”

The problem is that Beijing hosting a Winter Games is already a grandiose vanity project with no heed whatsoever to the environment—despite serious concerns about environmental impact.

As three ecology professors warned in a letter to the scientific journal Nature, the available water per person in Beijing is already about 3 percent of the world’s average with less than 6 millimeters of average precipitation in February, meaning all of the snow for events will need to be artificial, at a cost of water and electricity equivalent to the needs of thousands of households.

China’s original Olympic bid used lovely terms such as “ecofriendly” and “sustainable” and “recycled” melted snow, all with the promise that “snow-making during the Games will not have any negative impact on the local ecosystem.” Given that the area already has a $62 billion water-diversion program in place just to stabilize the needs of the region, the bid’s promises seem far-fetched.

“This kind of development is a Martian-like plan,” Carmen de Jong, a professor at France’s University Savoie Mont Blanc who studies water and Alpine sports, told the New York Times at the time of Beijing’s bid. “It’s completely artificial.”

That Times story cited an impact study from the Chinese NGO Friends of Nature, which said in 2011 that 11 ski resorts open near Beijing used an average of one billion gallons of water—enough for about 42,000 people.

While it’s helpful that China is repurposing some of its previous Olympic facilities—several venues will be repurposed, including the Water Cube, which hosted swimming and now will house curling—that hardly overcomes the environmental harm the Winter Games pose to an area with already depleted water reserves. In fact, just this past weekend, China reportedly shut down 111 golf courses and restricted 65 others for infractions such as improper use of groundwater, arable land, or protected land within nature reserves, according to an Associated Press account of, again, a report from the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

China simultaneously is trying to bolster its winter sports participation to 300 million citizens in time for the 2022 Games. The country is building 500 new skating rinks and 240 ski slopes in an effort to do so, according to InsideTheGames.biz; there’s also an expansion pro hockey team, the Kunlun Red Star that calls Beijing home but competes in the Russian-centric Kontinental Hockey League.

Despite Xi’s (apparent) proclamations to the contrary, there is no reason to suspect the 2022 Games will be anything less than what the New Republic touted here: “A Winter Olympics in Snowless Beijing Will Be an Environmental Disaster.”