Surfers spend their entire lives chasing waves, while skiers and snowboarders travel around the world to feel the crisp new mountain snow, and climbers constantly try to reach the peaks of nature’s great summits. Environmental conditions play a central role in many sports; in fact, most outdoor sports rely heavily on certain climates and are therefore sensitive to any environmental changes. However, there is now overwhelmingly scientific consensus that climate change is occurring rapidly and that humans have a significant effect on these changing climate phenomena. According to NASA and the NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record and there is strong evidence that the average sea level is rising at an increasing rate. Such changes will not only have disastrous effects on local communities, species, and populations around the world, they will also have an impact and potentially fatal consequences on the world of sports. Looking at how sports is affected by, but also greatly contributes to climate change and pollution, can point us to a greater understanding of the complex and numerous ways that humans engage with and adapt to environmental changes.
Winter sports are experiencing the effects of the changing climate. In Alaska, humans compete annually in a traditional thousand-mile dog sled race: the Iditarod. The race is famous for its extreme weather conditions, as the riders encounter blizzards, gale force winds, and sub-zero temperatures. However, in 2016, there was zero inches of snow on the ground in Anchorage on the starting day, so race officials had to postpone the race and bring in a trainload of snow from southern Alaska in order to cover the ground. This was highly unusual since March 1st, when the race begins, is usually the snowiest time of year. Ski industries all over the world are also struggling with the lack of snowfall on the mountains and have had to increase their production of artificial snow to cover the ground. In 2010, at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, 300 truckloads of snow were brought in for the skiing and snowboarding events. In relation to this, environmental scientists predict that by 2080, 11 out of the 19 former Winter Olympic host cities will become climatically unsuitable for hosting the games due to global warming.
In recent years, geologists and social scientists have used the term “the Anthropocene” to describe a new geological epoch in which human industrial production has had such a large impact on the planet that it has ushered in a new geological era; according to these scientists, humans, therefore, should be considered the major actor in the destruction of the earth’s current ecosystems and life forms. Anthropologists argue that the concept of the Anthropocene challenges us to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the Earth and with other species, since the prevalent opinion since the Enlightment period that man has dominion over nature has been a major factor driving environmental destruction and change. Therefore, instead of thinking of man as the master of nature, the Anthropocene pushes us to think about man as co-existing with other species and ecological systems, if we wish to stop further ecological destruction.
The sports industry also has a significant environmental impact and is in many ways a major contributor to the destruction of planetary species and ecosystems. The construction of ski slopes, for example, often disrupts natural landscapes and highly sensitive ecological environments, such as the soil erosion that is caused when removing trees. Some golf courses in the US consume over 80 million gallons of water a day and, due to their immense use of fuel, motorsports such as NASCAR and Formula 1 have some of the highest environmental footprints on the planet. In 2016, the sailing venue for the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro became a public symbol of the Anthropocene epoch when the white boats turned visibly brown after sailing in the polluted waters for only a short amount of time. In fact, there was a public discussion before the Olympics about whether it was even safe for the athletes to compete in the polluted waters outside Rio.
However, while human industrial production continues to impact the planet, some people are adapting to the changing climate. In his fieldwork among Greenlanders in Qeqertarsuaq on Disco Island, the anthropologist Pelle Tejsner found that the residents were open to changing weather conditions and sea ice. Tejsner observed that they were open to the possibility of significant environmental changes since for them the environment has always been perceived as complex, livable and changing. In order for them to learn how to fish and hunt, they have to cope with variable climates. In fact, the residents formed social relationships with each other through the changing climate by exchanging opinions about when weather or sea ice might change and being patient in the face of unpredictable weather. In that sense, adaptation to the changing climate also became a social endeavor.
In the world of athletics, we also see different sports trying to adapt to the changing climate. Some mountain resorts have developed artificial surfaces called ´dry slopes´ that make it possible to slide on different surfaces without snow, such as sand skiing, grass skiing or roller skiing. Following predictions of future drought and heat, traditional outdoor sports in high-heat regions such as golf, tennis, and football, have already started to build indoor facilities. However, while these adaptations might be seen as a positive step towards sports being more aware of their impact in the world, technological solutions such as the dry slopes are known to have high environmental consequences, since they are made out of textures like plastic. That points to what the anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has called the ´fantasy of control´, namely the idea that humans can reengineer the planet’s ecosystems by applying just the right technological knowledge, so that it can be reworked for human advantage. Therefore, instead of reengineering golf courses, ski slopes, and other sports facilities, we may need to change our fundamental way of thinking about how and where we play sports in the future.
Tejsner, Pelle. “Living with uncertainties: Qeqertarsuarmiut perceptions of changing sea ice.” Polar Geography 36.1-2 (2013): 47-64.
Kawa, Nicholas C. Amazonia in the Anthropocene: People, soils, plants, forests. University of Texas Press, 2016.
Photo under CCL: Nattu