Is Beijing Right To Host Winter Olympics?

Despite low snowfall and a semi-arid climate, China is making bid to host 2022 Winter Olympics

Already heavily reliant on manmade snow, Northeast Chinese ski resorts are planning on beefing up snowmaking for the Olympics. PHOTO: Pete Robbins/Flickr.
Already heavily reliant on manmade snow, Northeast Chinese ski resorts are planning on beefing up snowmaking for the Olympics. PHOTO: Pete Robbins/Flickr.

Sadly, it wasn’t an April Fools’ Day joke. On April 1, California Governor Jerry Brown issued mandatory statewide water restrictions for the first time in state history. Sierra and Southern California skiers certainly don’t need to be reminded of the four-year drought. As California battles water rights and environmental consequences from the drought, a similar story, as it relates to snowfall or the lack thereof, is occurring in China.

In a story last week from The New York Times, writer Ian Johnson chronicles Beijing’s path to winning a bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics despite the mountains’ location in a semi-arid ecosystem with an average of only 15 inches of precipitation (comparatively, low-lying ski areas in the European Alps annually average 40-plus inches). The story goes on to state that “two-thirds of that precipitation falls in the summer. In December and January, areas like Chongli [where the ski halfpipe, slopestyle, and freestyle events would be held], receive about a tenth of an inch of precipitation, meaning they are usually barren throughout the winter.” If awarded the bid, Beijing would become the first city to ever host a Summer and Winter Olympics.

It’s no secret China’s boom in industry and development the last few decades is attributed to cheap labor and attempts at making it look appealing to tourism. Hosting the Olympics would create new jobs and investment, but it would come at an extreme cost to the environment and agricultural industry. At 22 million people, Beijing’s population has doubled the last 25 years, forcing the government to build a $62-billion project to divert water from the rainy south to the dry north.

Notwithstanding, nearly the entire snowpack in the proposed area, as it exists now, is artificial and would rely heavily on snowmaking to host an Olympics. Not only have Chinese hydrologists said there shouldn’t be any ski resorts in China (some, in the story, say it’s “a Martian-like plan”), but the proposed site for the Alpine events is a national park and protected nature reserve.

According to the story, the International Olympic Committee toured the proposed facilities last week. The surrounding area and mountains were brown and void of snow, with only the white ribbons of slopes covered by the water-sucking snowmaking machines. A final decision by the IOC is slated for July. If awarded the bid, China could perhaps look to Governor Brown for strategic ways to avoid starving the population of needed resources, like food and drinking water, rather than building a 22-foot superpipe from snow that wouldn’t exist without technological intervention.