Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia: "It's dramatic for our sport"

Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia: “It’s dramatic for our sport”

Received with astonishment, the award of the 2029 Asian Winter Games to Saudi Arabia obeys a double logic: the use of sports competitions as national showcases, and the hasty race of authorities in perpetual search for host countries that are increasingly scarce.

For snow events, it is hard to imagine a more spectacular slope than the one that separates the Japanese powder snow of Sapporo, site of the first (1986) and last (2017) edition of these Games, and the mountainous desert of Trojena, 50 kilometers away from the Red Sea coast, which has never seen a single skier. “It’s dramatic for our sport”deplored Olympic downhill runner-up Johan Clarey at RMC on Tuesday night, while International Ski and Snowboard Federation Secretary General Michel Vion told himself “Surprised” of the decision of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).

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At the end of 2021, Dubai hosted the qualifying slaloms for the Beijing Winter Olympics in the refrigerated dome of a huge shopping mall, with 30°C outside already pushing back the limits of alpine skiing. But everything is questionable in the Saudi project in the midst of global warming, from the expected temperatures to the energy impact, through the diversion of local water resources and the artificialization of still virgin slopes.

An ad effect?

Seeing Saudi Arabia advance its pawns on the sports map is in itself anything but a surprise after his investments in Formula 1, cycling or football, via the takeover bid for the English club Newcastle and a candidacy in preparation for co-organizing the 2030 World Cup. But each project has a different objective, and that of the Asian Games is “particularly cheap”, explains to AFP Raphaël Le Magoariec, a specialist in the geopolitics of sport in the Gulf countries at the University of Tours. If the rivalry with neighboring Qataris and Emiratis, regional pioneers of sports diplomacy, remains in the background, Riyadh “mainly he wants to highlight his city of the future”Neom, emphasizes the researcher.

Big unknowns about the viability of the project

Run by the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmane, this multi-hundred-billion-dollar complex is at the moment just a shiny model. But its promoters point to an inauguration in 2026, with ski slopes open all year round, an artificial lake, mansions and luxury hotels. “There are great unknowns about the snow, and even about the realization of the entire project”warns Raphaël Le Magoariec.

From a climatic point of view, the extremely low precipitation (less than 50 mm per year according to various sources) precludes the assumption of a natural snow cover, even in midwinter. But, “at this stage,” this attribution constitutes “especially an ad effect”analyze “in a wholly regional context”says Mr. Le Magoariec.

Instances “out of tune”

By hosting the Asian Games, the kingdom “does not seek to speak to a European audience” otherwise wealthy classes in the Middle East, Russia, India and Chinain a “neoliberal logic and lack of reflection on the environment or human rights”says the doctoral student. On the other hand, the choice of the Olympic Council of Asia may seem surprising, as sporting bodies increasingly stake their reputations on the social and ecological impact of their competitions, measured with increasing precision by researchers and NGOs. But, in the absence of any other candidate, “The OCA can’t be too picky and decided it was better to go to Saudi Arabia than nowhere”summarizes Pim Verschuuren, a specialist in sports geopolitics at the University of Rennes II.

no other candidate

Occupied respectively by the Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 Olympic Games, Japan and China have left the Asian Winter Games after hosting six of the first eight editions, while the OCA “needs” host countries “exist politically and economically”. the candidacy crisiss also goes beyond Asia, since the reticence of the populations before the cost and the gigantism of the great sporting events is derailing a series of dossiers, a particularly acute challenge for winter competitions and their already restricted geography.

“The whole question is which organization will be the first to reduce the size and impact of their event to meet the sustainability criteria”asks Pim Verschuuren. But the instances remain. “heavy ocean liners, which will take time to change”, points out the academic, at the risk of a prolonged “delay” with the climate emergency.

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