Desert games: On the politics of climate and sports

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It’s been widely reported in journals such as Nature, and elsewhere, that “most cities might be too hot to host the summer Olympic Games after 2085 because of climate change”. Only 25 cities in western Europe – and just eight in the rest of the Northern Hemisphere – are deemed “suitable” to host the 2088 Games.

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The detailed study, which integrates climate modelling with biometeorological factors affecting human comfort, is most impressive; however, it overlooks the political and financial dimension to the host city selection process: Host cities are rarely ever selected for their climate suitability.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), for example, recently selected Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Games despite the fact that, according to the IOC’s own evaluation report published in 2015, the mountains in the region have “minimal annual snowfall” and the Games would “rely completely on artificial snow.”

“The Zhangjiakou and Yanqing Zones have minimal annual snowfall and for the Games would rely completely on artificial snow. There would be no opportunity to haul snow from higher elevations for contingency maintenance to the racecourses so a contingency plan would rely on stockpiled man-made snow. Beijing 2022 presented weather data from 2014-2015 indicating a particular risk for Yanqing in terms of the quality and quantity of snow.”

“Northern China suffers from severe water stress and the Beijing – Zhangjiakou area is becoming increasingly arid.”

“The Commission considers Beijing 2022 has underestimated the amount of water that would be needed for snowmaking for the Games but believes adequate water for Games needs could be supplied. In addition, the Commission is of the opinion that Beijing 2022 has overestimated the ability to recapture water used for snowmaking.”

– Report of the 2022 Evaluation Commission, International Olympic Committee

Most outrageous of all, perhaps, was FIFA’s selection of Qatar as the host of the 2022 World Cup, despite the knowledge that the average daytime high in most of the desert country regularly exceeds 50°C (120°F).  FIFA’s own evaluation of Qatar’s bid acknowledged that the heat is “considered as a potential health risk”.

As part of Qatar’s bid, the German ‘climate engineering’ firm Transsolar conducted a study (and accompanying TED Talk) to explore various solar shading and cooling strategies to improve outdoor comfort conditions for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The complex solutions proposed — such as radiant cooling using water pipes embedded beneath the stadium seating and grass on the pitch — would be difficult to implement and only address spectators and players inside the stadium; it ignores the millions of other spectators who typically take in the World Cup matches outdoors at cafes, plazas, and designated fan zones. (You can forget about bars in Qatar.)

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Organizers have since moved the 2022 World Cup to November and December, but not without creating chaos for most of the world’s domestic soccer leagues who now have to change their annual schedules.

So, while climate change will undoubtedly exacerbate the host city (or nation) bidding and selection process, it’s clear that we won’t have to wait until 2088 to see the misalignment between global sporting events and climate.

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Photo: Dick Sweeney

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