Five Winter Olympians have traded in the slopes for briefing rooms to urge Congress to take action on climate change.
As global temperatures continue to rise, snowboarder Arielle Gold, along with skiers David Wise, Jessie Diggins, Stacey Cook and biathlete Maddie Phaneuf, traveled to Capitol Hill this week to brief lawmakers on how climate change is a growing threat to winter sports and outdoor recreation.
Gold, who showed up to the briefing wearing an arm sling, said she attributes her injury to the conditions in Sochi, Russia, where temperatures were 50-60 degrees and athletes were not able to practice because the course would fall apart due to the warm temperatures. She said the lack of practice led to a crash, which highlights how climate change has contributed to the reduction of snowpack and affected the safety and future of winter sports.
The Sochi Olympics was “one of the worst events I’ve ever had. They were spraying blue chemicals on the halfpipe to try to keep it frozen. It’s unlikely that city will ever be able to host the Winter Olympics again,” Gold said. The Sochi Games were in 2014, but Gold’s injury has continued to be a problem, and she had surgery earlier this year.
According to a study by the University of Waterloo in Ontario, climate change can alter the geography of the Winter Olympics, because only eight of 21 cities that have previously hosted the games will be cold enough to host them by the end of this century, unless global emissions of greenhouse gases are significantly reduced.
The economic impact
The April 25 bipartisan congressional briefing was organized by the nonprofits Protect Our Winters and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and was co-hosted by Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Bennet, who noted Colorado is a state that depends on winter sports financially, said he believes it’s important to build a durable coalition around the scientific consensus that climate change is real.
“For people in my state, outdoor recreation is not just an avocation – it’s a vocation. And that likely rings true for the Olympic athletes here today,” Bennet said.
“Our economy is going to depend on us getting it right on climate, and I am incredibly optimistic that we will do the right thing, whether we have to drag Washington there or not.”
The same thought came from gold medalist Wise, who said he believes winter sports and outdoor recreations are responsible for many jobs and economic activity.
“Now we are starting to see it, I think everybody is beginning to see it on a personal level, realizing, ‘Hey this is not only real, but it’s immediate, it’s something that is changing quickly and we need to do something about it,’ ” Wise said during the briefing.
“It’s not just about saving the environment anymore, it’s about saving our economy.”
A recent report from Protect Our Winters found that in the winter season of 2015-2016, more than 20 million people participated in some sort of outdoor activity, bringing an estimated value of $20.3 billion to the US economy. The report said low snow years have resulted in the loss of 17,400 jobs and decreased the estimated value to the economy by over $1 billion.
What’s next for the athletes?
As winter sports in lower altitudes now heavily rely on man-made snow for training and competition, these five Olympians, frustrated by the federal government’s inaction on climate, hope that during the briefing they were able to convince congressional staffers that this is not just a political issue but something that needs attention to save the planet.
“We’re your canaries in the coal mine. We see [climate change] happening all over the world, and it affects everyone at every level. I see man-made snow everywhere we go — nobody can count on natural snow anymore. It’s a sign we really need to do something. Climate change is taking away a very healthy, incredibly fun, family-oriented sport that I love,” gold medalist Diggins said.
President Donald Trump hosted roughly 200 US Olympians and Paralympians from the PyeongChang Winter Games at the White House on Friday.
CNN has reached out to the five Olympians for further comment and to find out if they met with the President.