BEHIND THE SCENES: From “plastic” snow to the future of “Big Air” and the impossibility of a Winter Games in the Southern Hemisphere

With long experience in evaluation and coordination commissions of the Olympic Games, José Luis Marcó analyzed in an interview with Around the Rings the changes of the last decades and the challenges for the future.

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2022 Beijing Olympics - Nordic Combined - Team Gundersen Large Hill/4x5km, Ski Jumping Competition Round - National Ski Jumping Centre, Zhangjiakou, China - February 17, 2022. A 'Beijing 2022' signage is covered in snow due to snowfall during the competition. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
2022 Beijing Olympics - Nordic Combined - Team Gundersen Large Hill/4x5km, Ski Jumping Competition Round - National Ski Jumping Centre, Zhangjiakou, China - February 17, 2022. A 'Beijing 2022' signage is covered in snow due to snowfall during the competition. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

The future of the Winter Olympic Games could include more countries and regions as potential venues, and for that it is important that the snow changes. And how could the snow “change”? José Luis Marcó, with long experience in evaluation and coordination commissions, believes that ultimately it is not a nonsense to think of “plastic” snow.

“You can think that in a few years, if the snow market shrinks, there’s going to be a greater interest in companies to invest and create something that replaces snow, doesn’t need cold and allows a snow-like skiing sensation,” the 71-year-old Argentine lawyer told Around the Rings.

“It’s a futuristic idea of mine, to this day it doesn’t exist, nobody has invented it, but conceptually it’s not impossible,” adds Marcó, who has plenty of parchment to venture the future of the Winter Games.

A member of the evaluation commissions of the 2002, 2010, 2014 and 2026 Winter Games, as well as of the 2012 Summer Games, Marcó was or is also part of the coordination commissions of Vancouver 2010, Beijing 2022 and Gangwon 2024, as well as of the legal and safety committee of the International Ski Federation (FIS).

That’s why even before Beijing 2022 started, Marcó was very clear about several of the things that would happen at the Games.

“China’s project was a project based on a strategic location for them, an area with a lot of cold and little snow. That was known since the candidacy, we were very clear about it. From the environmental point of view, it does not have to generate any concern, all that snow will be converted into water that will flow without any type of pollutant.”

And although Marcó emphasizes that in the final stretch of the Games there was abundant natural snow, artificial snow is here to stay in the winter competitions.

“The artificial snow is a product of climate change and the need to ensure television broadcasting. The FIS establishes in its regulations that there must be 100 percent artificial snow capacity from the summit to the base. This has been in place since the 1990s. And caring for the environment is not antithetical to artificial snow.”

“We are keeping up with the new realities. How long before we have totally artificial snow made of a plastic substance? We will be able to ski in many more countries in the world. And another issue is that of indoor testing, as in Holland or Dubai with indoor slopes where FIS calendar races are run.”

José Luis Marcó and Nadie Comaneci on one of the evaluation commissions' trips
José Luis Marcó and Nadie Comaneci on one of the evaluation commissions' trips

The first evaluation commission that Marcó was part of was presided over by Thomas Bach, today at the head of the IOC. It was the commission that evaluated the bids for the 2002 Games, which ended up being won by Salt Lake City.

Those American Games were at the center of a corruption scandal that involved several IOC members and led the then president, the Spanish Juan Antonio Samaranch, to modify several aspects of the evaluation and election system.

Marcó highlights the differences between what the IOC wanted back then and what it seeks today.

“The aim was for the Games to be compact and for the athletes not to have to travel. This led to the choice of large venues where everything could be found within a short distance. The last Games of this type were in Salt Lake, with ski resorts very close to each other that you could reach by highway and not by mountain roads. Let’s find the best place in the world for the best athletes in the world. And for the athletes not to travel too far. That was the concept.”

It isn’t anymore.

Mitt Romney, leader of Salt Lake City 2002
Mitt Romney, leader of Salt Lake City 2002

“Today the trend is toward sustainable Games, the desire to adapt the Games to the master plan of the city, not the city to the Games. This is the big philosophical change. What you do is interact with the stakeholders, understand the project and help them.”

A clear example is that of Milano/Cortina 2026, says the Argentine.

“With sub-venues in six or eight sites and spread over three regions of Italy, these Games would have been impossible a few years ago. But today we prioritize other things. For example, not to build, but to take advantage of what is already built. And how do we make sure the athletes don’t travel too much? Very easy, today it is accepted to have up to four Olympic villages. Athletes come together for the opening and closing ceremonies.

The big discussion took place with Whistler, the mountain venue for the Vancouver Games. There was talk of helicoptering the medalists. It was nonsense, and with the telecommunications we have today it makes no sense. The opening ceremony in Milano/Cortina will be held at the San Siro. In other words, you don’t build a stadium that the city of Milan doesn’t need”.

José Luis Marcó
José Luis Marcó

The luge track of the Italian Winter Games is highlighted by Marcó, as it is the same one used in the Cortina D’Ampezzo 1956 Games. “Today on the slopes, elegance and elegance are sought after, not necessarily speed.”

A good connoisseur of the history of the Games, Marcó highlights a detail of how it all began in those of Chamonix 1924.

“The athletes who participated in those Games didn’t know they were participating in a Winter Olympics. At an IOC session the following year it was resolved that the previous year’s events constituted the first Winter Games. It’s an unusual case of retroactivity.”

What about the future: is Big Air to the Winter Games what surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing are to the Summer Games?

Marcó shows some skepticism.

2022 Beijing Olympics - Snowboard - Men's Snowboard Big Air Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 15, 2022.  Hiroaki Kunitake of Japan in action. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 12" FOR BEIJING 2022 WINTER OLYMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES    TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
2022 Beijing Olympics - Snowboard - Men's Snowboard Big Air Final - Run 3 - Big Air Shougang, Beijing, China - February 15, 2022. Hiroaki Kunitake of Japan in action. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu SEARCH "OLYMPICS DAY 12" FOR BEIJING 2022 WINTER OLYMPICS EDITOR'S CHOICE, SEARCH "REUTERS OLYMPICS TOPIX" FOR ALL EDITOR'S CHOICE PICTURES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“It’s hard to say whether it’s here to stay. I ask: in the Summer Games, is climbing here to stay? Surfing, is it here to stay? Let’s see how they evolve. But the new concept is to bring athletes to compete in cities, which is a concept that was very much developed at the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Games. And it is today the concept of Paris 2024, which is bringing the competition sites to their iconic venues, with an opening ceremony on the Seine.”

“Big air and its permanence is going to depend on the degree of acceptance and the number of practitioners. One day something new will appear and it will die. Kitesurfing may displace windsurfing, we can’t know...”.

The possibility of a winter Games in the southern hemisphere, something that was briefly discussed at the IOC a few years ago, is viewed with skepticism by Marcó.

“There are ski resorts in four countries in the southern hemisphere - Argentina, Chile, New Zealand and Australia. Argentina does not have any resorts with the necessary development for an Olympic Games, it would require a large investment in infrastructure. The resorts in Australia and New Zealand can be well developed, although the Australian resorts lack slopes. And the New Zealanders are a small population, so I don’t think they would be interested in such a big project.

The biggest obstacle, however, is commercial: “The big players interested in the Winter Games are in the northern hemisphere. Games in August in the southern hemisphere when Europeans are at the beach? Advertising on TV for skiwear when people are in bathing suits? It’s understandable that those sponsors might not end up looking favorably on a Games in a season that is not their usual one.”

An expert in candidatures, Marcó believes that the current IOC system, which left behind fierce competition and Oscar-style winner-announcement ceremonies, is a success.

“The possible candidacies are the ones that end up being real. This new system has a big advantage: there are no losers. That’s very important, people don’t get hurt. With the previous system there were losers and great candidates were lost. Istanbul was a candidate for the Summer Games for many opportunities, the same as Madrid. And they didn’t make it. Today it is different, there is a new philosophy”.

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