Daniel Scott

Dr. Daniel Scott
Professor, Faculty of Environment

As winter changes across the Northern Hemisphere, sporting bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are forced to reassess the best way to host the globally celebrated games on a warming planet.

To assist with this unprecedented task, in November the IOC invited Dr. Daniel Scott, Canada Research Chair and professor in Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management, and his colleague Professor Robert Steiger from the University of Innsbruck to discuss their research and recommendations with the Future Host Commission. Their research demonstrates that mountains at former Winter Olympic host locations are warming much faster than the global average. Combined with the selection of warmer host locations, the average daytime high temperature has increased from near 0°C when the games began to more than 7°C in recent games. Future climate change will further test the limits of the IOC’s many weather-risk management strategies.

Looking to the future, the research finds that climate change will increasingly impact the Games over the twenty-first century. Depending on what pathway global emissions take, the research indicates that only half of the 21 previous host cities/regions would have suitable conditions for the Games in the 2050s, with as few as eight reliable hosts in the 2080s if emissions remain high. The observed and projected impacts on the Paralympic Winter Games are even greater, as they are held in March and more at risk to spring like temperatures.

To further adapt to climate change, the researchers offered several recommendations to the IOC. For example, the IOC should require a more detailed climate risk assessment, informed by climatic requirements of athletes and sporting federations for safe and fair competitions, as part of the bid process. As well, more flexibility in future bids would enable new successful combinations of a major city to host the tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, officials, media and tourists, and a climate reliable mountain venue for the snow-based competitions. This could include multi-national regional Games, like a Rocky Mountain Games hosted by communities in Canada and the U.S. Such a break with tradition has potential benefits beyond climate resilience, including more distributed economic costs, reduced community disruption, greater infrastructure benefits and broader volunteer engagement, and is a model the Fédération Internationale de Football Association has embraced for the next World Cup in Canada-Mexico-United States. This arrangement could potentially enable a unified Olympic and Paralympic Games, which would resolve the greater climate vulnerability of the March Paralympics and represent a major advancement in sport equity. The need to prioritize or fast track some host locations that might only be able to reliably host the Games over the next two decades and strengthen the sustainability of climate responses in the bid process were also emphasized.

The Future Host Commission were presented these findings and had many important questions for Scott and the team. The Commission advised the IOC Executive Board to delay the selection of the 2030 Winter Olympic Games, which was scheduled to take place at the 140th IOC Session in 2023. On December 6th, the IOC announced they would delay the selection in order “to study all these factors and opportunities to make the best possible decisions about future hosting.”

After seeing the IOC’s decision, Scott stated, “we know that climate change will alter the geography of the Winter Games. The IOC has made climate change a priority as a founding organization of the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework, and we were honored to be invited to advise them on managing climate risk to ensure the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games can remain a global celebration of sport for generations to come.”

In the months ahead, the Future Host Commission plans to consult with international federations, athletes, and experts, like Scott, as they assess the potential of three cities invited to host the 2030 Games: Vancouver, Salt Lake City and Sapporo. They will also be looking at the feasibility of some intriguing ideas informed by Scott and the team’s research, like rotating the Olympic Winter Games within a pool of hosts and a proposal that hosts would need to show average minimum temperatures of below zero degrees for snow competition venues at the time of the Games over a 10-year period.

For more about Dr. Scott’s research, read Cliamte change threatens future Winter Olympics published earlier this year.