As we walked into Olympic Park on Feb. 8, the morning after the spectacular opening ceremony, there were at least 50 security guards within eyesight. To enter the venue, we passed through three security checkpoints. In that moment, security no longer felt like the biggest concern of the Games. The burning sun beating down on our cheeks did. That first day, two of our group, Team Climate, got sunburns. During the first week of the Olympics, temperatures climbed into the high 50s and low 60s. At moments, it was easy to forget which Olympic Games we were actually watching -- summer or winter. But when our boots sank into slushy snow and puddles of mud, we remembered. As spectators, we groaned having to trudge through melted snow. But as athletes, the Winter Olympians don't have the choice to bypass a puddle or avoid the slush. This is the reality of our courses, our tracks and our runs. Some athletes described the conditions as "skiing on a layer of fur" or "mashed potatoes."
After a disastrous day on Saturday for women's alpine skiing, in which only 31 of 49 world-class athletes could even finish the course, Switzerland's Laura Gut spoke up. Gut, who finished fourth, said, "There is no snow at the bottom, it's not funny anymore. This is a disaster, it was a shame for everybody." Taylor Fletcher, one of Team USA's Olympians, said parts of the Nordic Combined track were more brown than white. "I don't know if it's snow or mud," Fletcher said. Though some of the white sections included snow that was "packed firm," he said a good portion was pure slush.
Though International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams pointed out that no competitions had been canceled or moved, he neglected to mention that the last women's downhill training was canceled on Wednesday due to mild temperatures and soft snow conditions. He also neglected to mention that high-profile athletes, like Team USA's Shaun White, were pulling out of competitions due to unreliable and unsafe snow conditions.
Needless to say, athletes are noticing the problems and complications caused by the warm weather. And they're not just attributing the poor conditions to the host city's subtropical location. Many of them are speaking up about climate change, the threats that it poses, and what they as Olympians competing on a world stage can do to help.
Hannah Kearney, Team USA Olympic Freestyle Skier, Vancouver Gold Medalist and Sochi Bronze Medalist, urges, "Athletes need to come together as a united front. We rely on mountains and snow for our sport, for our livelihoods and to fulfill our passions. As a result, we could be a force of positive change. If we don't get a handle on climate change, there won't be winter sports."
Kearney is not the only Olympian with these thoughts. Our team, composed of five graduate students from Yale University's School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, is collaborating with Olympians to open a climate change dialogue at the Winter Olympics, where it belongs.
This risk isn't exclusive to snow sports athletes. Sliding sports, including luge, skeleton and bobsled, are also at risk. We caught up with Kyle Tress, Team USA Olympic Skeleton athlete, at the Games. Tress expressed his fears for the future, saying, "It's not hard to imagine a future where sliding sports are unsustainable, due to dwindling winters, lack of athletes, and the high cost of building and maintaining venues." A recent study by the University of Waterloo validates these fears, noting that warming as predicted by scientists by mid-century could eliminate nearly half of recent host cities as suitable venues. Though Tress is worried about the viability of such events in the face of warming winters, he hopes "it inspires people to care more about winter sports, and the reasons why these unique events might be in danger."
Many of these athletes plan to use their Olympic stardom to take this cause to the next level. They plan to take action, and urge the public to do the same.
Andy Newell, Team USA Olympic Cross Country Skier was "tired of waiting for politics to catch up to the climate impacts now being felt worldwide." He decided to take action. Newell is spearheading a petition to collect signatures from professional winter sports athletes calling for climate change action. With the help of Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit organization dedicated to uniting the global snow sports community to take action against climate change, Newell created a website, Athletes for Action, as a platform for this petition. He and 100 professional winter sports athlete signees are calling on world leaders to come together at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris 2015 to finally take bold and immediate measures to address climate change. Newell understands that this petition is a small step, but he recognizes that "everyone can take action and everyone has a voice."
"The Olympics have always been about coming together as a global community to share in our collective talents. Now it's time for us to come together and use our collective talents not for sport but for problem solving. As an athlete I meet challenges head on. Climate change is no different," says Justin Reiter, Team USA Olympic Snowboarder.
One of the strongest things we've felt on the ground at Sochi is the sheer momentum surrounding this issue. The momentum that drives athletes to compete and succeed is the same that drives them to speak up about climate change. The momentum that drives media to come early and stay late to cover an event is the same that drives them to seek out new and compelling stories. Being here at the Games, we as Team Climate have had the unique opportunity to find and tell these stories. After we bridge that initial gap during which the media person says "I'm so busy running to this or that and have no time for you," we politely but firmly explain that we have a real story to tell, backed by strong scientific facts and rife with pertinent quotes by Olympic athletes. Then they start to listen. There's been a strong response to our project, and we've able to make on-the-ground connections that have led to interviews, articles and coverage.
We created Team Climate with the goal of bringing the climate change discussion to the Winter Olympics. We are on track to achieve this; several dozen stories have been written about climate change and the Olympics in the past week, many of them focusing on the stories shared by our Olympian partners. We are excited to continue spreading our Olympians' experiences through the end of the Games. Ultimately, we hope our work introducing the climate dialogue to the Olympic audience will make a lasting contribution to building support for climate action.
These athletes compete for medals individually, but we must all team up to fight climate change. If they don't win a medal, there's always the next competition. If we don't win against climate change, there may not be any more winter sports competitions.
This blog originally appeared on Climasphere.org.