The Economic and Environmental Cost of the Olympics

The I.O.C. awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to a region almost completely lacking in snow.


Mathias Elle / Unsplash

Artificial environments and fake snow are not new and have made up between 80 and 90 percent of the snow at the last two Olympic games. It paints a bigger picture of how climate change has created a new normal and affects even the Olympics.

If you have followed or watched the recent 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, it is hard to miss that just beyond the cascading white slopes lie brown mountains barely touched by snow. 

While man-made artificial snow is not new to professional winter sports and resorts, Beijing has relied on it almost entirely at its most recent winter games. This trend has also expanded far past the professional industry. 

On average, winters are warming faster than summers and northern latitudes are warming faster than regions closer to the equator. Rising temperatures mean that more winter precipitation falls as rain rather than snow, and the snow that does fall is often less substantial. Sports that count on outdoor snow and ice are especially vulnerable. In a warming world, fewer cities may be reliably cold enough to naturally host the Winter Olympics in the future.

While artificial snow is designed in part to level the playing field and deliver consistent conditions for sports, it is also a sign that the ideal conditions for outdoor events, like alpine skiing, are becoming harder to find in nature. This makes it complicated for athletes to train and makes winter sports more expensive and exclusive, throttling the pipeline for new skiers, snowboarders, and skaters. It’s an early warning sign for the future of winter itself.

In addition to signifying the warming of winter, the use of synthetic powder exacerbates the warming itself. Covering a mountain slope in synthetic powder can harm the environment and add to the already enormous costs of hosting the Olympics  — the Beijing Winter Olympics reportedly cost $8.8 billion, though some estimates show the cost is much higher. Snow-making consumes energy and stresses water sources. 

In addition, snow machines still require cold temperatures to operate. In the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, snowmaking equipment couldn’t keep up with the unusually warm weather, so organizers resorted to using trucks and helicopters to bring in snow from elsewhere.

Yet the option of artificial snow has allowed Winter Olympics organizers to select host cities that are far from ideal. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia set a record for the highest temperature at a Winter Olympics: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The impacts of hosting the Olympics go far past just one season, sport, or city. While every game is certain to have both pros and cons, some argue that the cons far outweigh the positive effects the games bring to their host cities. 

For governments of host cities and nations, the Olympics provide a rare opportunity to increase prestige and international presence. Since the highly successful 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, elites and politicians have seized upon this potential to act as a catalyst for the development and image of their cities. 

Transforming a city for a global event such as the Olympics with an influx of media, tourists, and athletes requires space as well as building facilities, expanding transportation, and upgrading infrastructure. 

Communities that are run down or do not fit this new modern image face the brunt of Olympic development projects. Disproportionately, those targeted by displacement have been poor, minorities, or other vulnerable populations. The effects last past the Olympics, gentrification and increased costs of living have driven people in lower income brackets into a second wave of displacement. 

Leading up to the 1984 L.A. Olympics, authorities viewed and treated the large homelessness population as a nuisance. They criminalized homelessness in an attempt to push the already forgotten population further into the margins. 

According to Police Captain Billy Wedgeworth, the police and their efforts were intended “to sanitize the area.”

During the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the Atlanta City Council announced a plan to redevelop one of the oldest public subsidized housing projects, Techwood Homes, to make way for the games. However, the new townhouses would only be able to host a fraction of the former residents due in part to the reduction of publicly subsidized housing. Only 78 of the original residents returned to live at the newly renovated Centennial Place post-Olympics. 

In addition, an estimated 30,000 people were displaced by Olympic-related demolition and gentrification in Atlanta with a total of about 6,000 evicted from their public housing.

Thousands of Atlanta’s poorest residents were removed from high traffic Olympic areas and were issued one-way bus tickets to cities where they had relatives while signing papers promising they wouldn’t return.

Even when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been forewarned of a city’s problematic history, this pattern has continued. Amid protests concerning China’s human rights violations during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, former IOC president Jacques Rogge stated, “We believe the Games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible, the Games are going to be a force for good.” 

However, by the end of the event, over 1.5 million Chinese citizens were displaced. In addition, an unknown number of migrant workers were still not entitled to compensation for having to relocate and left out of official documents; resisters were handed one-year “reeducation through labor” sentences.

More recently, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in Brazil have been coined “the Exclusion Games.” Estimates place the number of displaced Brazilians between 60,000 and 70,000. The shiny new landscapes on the coastline are often placed next to low-income neighborhoods and favelas (slums located within or on the outskirts of the country’s large cities), exacerbating segregation issues and showing just how little the Games did to improve the lives of everyday people. 

The Rio Games promised a legacy of social transformation and inclusion to boost the failing economy. Instead, the reported $13 billion investment was wasted on short-term aesthetics with little benefit for anyone besides the already wealthy and rising middle class. 

In addition to the many citizens displaced every Olympic Games and other drawbacks, many of the expensive buildings used for the Games become abandoned soon afterwards.

With the recent closure of the Beijing Winter Olympics, the world will now shift their attention to Paris 2024. Then, Los Angeles 2028. After that, Brisbane 2032. As the world around us seeks to shift towards post-pandemic normalcy, the Olympics is no different, but maintaining the spectacle and splendor of the Games will be made possible by the displacement of people least acquired to bear the brunt of it. 

Former IOC president Jacques Rogge stated, “We believe the Games are going to move ahead the agenda of the social and human rights as far as possible, the Games are going to be a force for good.”