How climate change will determine where the Olympic Games are held

Global warming may severely limit the potential host cities for Olympic Summer Games in the next 50 years.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Surfers get ready to venture into the Atlantic Ocean at Macumba beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 4. Organizers of the Olympic Games in Rio highlighted the effects of climate change during opening ceremonies the following day.

Rising temperatures and humidity caused by climate change will make it increasingly difficult to find cities eligible to host the Olympics Summer Games, according to a new study encompassing the broader implications of climate change on the Olympics.

By 2085, only 25 European cities and eight non-European cities will be low-risk enough to host the games, according to a commentary co-authored by UC Berkeley public health professors John Balmes and Kirk Smith, Alistair Woodward of the University of Auckland, and Cindy Chang, the physician in charge of UC Berkeley’s athletic teams and the chief medical officer for Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics published last week in the journal The Lancet.

“If you’re going to be spending billions of dollars to host an event, you’re going to want have a level of certainty that you’re not going to have to cancel it at the last minute,” Professor Smith said in a statement.

The researchers drew their conclusions from data compiled for a broader, yet-to-be-published study on climate change. 

The researchers only looked at cities that followed the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) current guidelines, meaning that cities located more than 1 mile above sea level or with less than 600,000 people were not considered in their research. The climate side of their data was based on two climate change models and cities’ WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT), a calculation that factors in temperature, humidity, heat radiation, cloud cover, and wind speed.

In Europe, the researchers found that 25 cities would still be a low enough climate risk in 2085 to be considered for the Summer Games, but that Istanbul, Madrid, Rome, Paris, and Budapest would not be among them. Tokyo, which will host the games in 2020, will likely not be able to do so again due to climate change.

Beyond Europe the northern cities of  St. Petersburg, Russia; Riga, Latvia; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which may seem more suited to host Winter Games would also be eligible in 2085.

While the study looked at only the Northern Hemisphere, as nearly 90 percent of the world’s population resides above the equator, the Southern Hemisphere is expected to suffer even more from the effects of climate change. The wealthier north has contributed more significantly to climates change through disproportionate overuse of resources, particularly fossil fuels, whereas the poorer global south has seen the effects such as increasingly extreme weather patterns.

Rio actually highlighted this fact during its opening ceremony. Taking a break from displays of nationalism and celebration, the Olympic planners played a video highlighting not only the problem of climate change and global warming, but calling out countries that bear the brunt of the responsibility and highlighting others that have been disproportionately affected.

The message was particularly poignant coming from a nation like Brazil, where rainforests have been ravaged by deforestation and frequent storms have affected the already poor water quality.

The Winter Games are facing similar problems. According to data found by a similar study, by 2080 it is possible that as many as half of the last 20 winter Olympics host cities will be too warm, or no longer produce enough snow, to be eligible again.

“Climate change is going to force us to change our behavior from the way things have always been done,” Smith said in a statement. “This includes sending your kids outside to play soccer or going out for a jog. It is a substantially changing world. If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?”

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