The professional skiing industry is going downhill

I’ve only been skiing once. It wasn’t in Vail or Park City or atop any of the iconic mountains skiers call home. It was instead in good ol’ North Carolina, home of Krispy Kreme and aviation and definitely not skiing.

My eight-year-old body was perfectly fit for the bunny hills, where I spent a couple hours learning the ins and outs of a sport I quickly grew to love. Zooming down the 30 degree slopes and “pizza”-ing to come to a stop was a rush that topped the few times I had been sledding on a rare snowy winter day in Tennessee.

With my confidence sky-high, I decided it was time to advance to a real course. I had mastered the bunny hills — they were easy to me now. I needed to scratch my adrenaline-demanding itch and hit the real slopes.

Long story short, I tumbled over again and again and made it to the finish line a revenant, having worried multiple times that a rogue skier might impale me and bring my life to a premature and bitter end.

Skiing is hard. It’s also a sport that is difficult to access because of its high price threshold and reliance on ideal weather conditions. In an effort to challenge some of skiing’s traditional barriers to entry, almost 200 athletes from multiple winter sports are demanding that the International Ski and Snowboard Federation adapt before the repercussions of climate change render the sport unnecessary and unplayable.

In a letter released Feb. 16, FIS athletes noted the increased rate by which competitions had been canceled due to extreme weather events or unseasonably warm weather that prevents snow from sticking around.

“Our sport is threatened existentially and urgently,” the letter read. “That’s why we as a winter sports community have to take the lead in the fight against climate change and make our sport climate neutral as soon as possible.” 

The FIS has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions for all operations and events by 2035. Many of its athletes have now demanded “full transparency” to track the organization’s efforts.

A record-setting warm winter in Europe has forced the FIS to push back the start of the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships. Four of the first five events on the men’s calendar were canceled due to weather, meaning the season didn’t really kick off until late November — a full month after it was slated to begin.

A majority of ski resorts already use artificial snow. Almost 90% of ski resorts in the U.S.-based National Ski Area Association use machines to produce snow, resulting in extra expenses for the resorts and a 20% water loss.

Obviously, it would be ideal for skiers, snowboarders and bobsled teams if a track’s snow came from the sky and not a machine. The increased expense of producing snow would likely drive up the price of admission — widening the wealth gap that already exists in recreational and professional skiing.

Again, I am not a skier and I don’t see myself hitting the slopes anytime soon. However, it is a beloved sport by many and, if a physical activity is taking folks’ attention away from their screens, I will stand behind it. 

Human activity has had a major effect on the global decline in snowfall and ice cover over the past century. Obviously, this has ramifications on humans and animals across the world (like our poor polar bear friends) that are more serious than taking away winter sports. However, as the athletes who signed the list of complaints to FIS stated, sports can serve as a microcosm of greater global issues — as well as an outlet to spread awareness of the global crisis that is being exacerbated by humans.

Mountain communities rely on glacier water runoff for drinking and agriculture purposes. With only 0.04% of the world’s water being deemed drinkable, there are communities across the globe that are suffering from dehydration every day. Over 3.5 million people die every year from water-related diseases. Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Chad and Uganda are among the countries with the least access to clean water. The 20% loss of water produced by snow machines doesn’t seem overly significant, but in a world in which water conservancy is a major issue, every drop counts.

The rate at which glaciers are melting has doubled in the last 20 years, much in part to the increasingly warming climate — a pattern to which humans are a primary contributor.

So, while the FIS should refocus its water conservation efforts and work on lowering its carbon footprint in order to better protect the longevity of winter sports, perhaps the federation (which, admittedly, is not working on an overwhelming profit margin — making around $20 million in 2020) should donate some of its attention and funding to helping communities that couldn’t care less about skiing. Using excess water to make snow is a luxury of wealthy ski communities. There are other communities that see thousands of people die every year because of a lack of access to clean water. 

The winter athletes’ letter to the FIS is a good start in holding organizations accountable for their damaging actions towards the climate. But professional sports organizations should also focus their efforts on helping the world’s most vulnerable communities. 

Patrick Warren is an associate managing editor and a senior writing about the relationship between sports and climate change. His column, “The World of Sports,” runs every other Friday.