Heading downhill: Holding FIS accountable?

November 23 2023

While it is no question that the climate emergency will affect all sporting events, the future of winter sports in particular is at the mercy of changing weather patterns.

Heading downhill: Holding FIS accountable?

In October, Protect Our Winters Europe (POW) launched a petition calling on the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) to “do better” in its efforts to make winter sports and its own operations more sustainable. 

The move was prompted by reports that the organisers of the Men’s Alpine World Cup ordered the digging up of the Theodul Glacier to improve the conditions ahead of this month’s Zermatt-Cervinia event. 

A lack of snow this early on in the winter has led to cancellations in previous seasons, with Swiss and Italian representatives meeting with FIS at the end of October to assess the conditions for the Zermatt-Cervinia event. FIS ultimately gave the green light for the event, which includes the backdrop of the famous Matterhorn, to take place. 

In a turn of events, the men’s downhill race weekend in Zermatt-Cervinia – which was due to take place on November 11-12 – was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and strong winds. The move rounded off a weekend of challenging weather conditions for the first World Cup track to cross an international border.

Last weekend, the women’s Audi FIS Alpine World Cup Downhill was also cancelled due to strong winds.

In January this year, a night slalom race in Zagreb, Croatia was cancelled due to warm temperatures and patchy snowfall, while events in Adelboden, Switzerland were forced to take place on artificial snow. 

Last year’s Zermatt-Cervinia event was also cancelled due to the weather conditions.

POW states that it took note of the reports and pictures of extractors on the Theodul Glacier in Zermatt, and launched its petition as a result. 

Image:  Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

Image: Wolfgang Hasselmann on Unsplash

FIS’s response to the petition stated that the picture used by POW for its petition was in fact taken in 2019 and released by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Austria (the picture has since been changed, it seems). The governing body further argued that the picture showed the Pitztal Glacier in Tirol and therefore had no connection to the FIS Alpine World Cup.

The scathing response from FIS reads: “Your campaign is highly unattractive. Your actions do not only harm the reputation of FIS but the future of skiing and snowboarding and the credibility of everyone who is genuinely trying to fight for climate action.

“Given the urgency of the challenge we face, anyone in the snow sports world who cares about the perils of climate change should not focus on attention-seeking stunts but on finding real long-term solutions. FIS, at least, will continue to act in this spirit.”

In May, FIS appointed a new Sustainability Director in Susanna Sieff, who was previously the Director of Sustainability for the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships Cortina 2021 between 2018 and 2021. Following this, Seiff was appointed to the organising committee for the next Winter Olympics and Paralympics in 2026 in Milano-Cortina, Italy.

Sieff explains that while the picture used by POW for its petition was from 2019 and not linked to FIS and the Alpine World Cup, work is sometimes undertaken to keep glaciers safe.

“Due to global warming over the last decades glaciers are melting all around the world,” Sieff tells Global Sustainable Sport. “This makes reconstruction work on the glaciers necessary to keep them safe. Glaciologists confirm that these works on the glacier do not force climate change, but rather slow down the effects of global warming and for example prevent glacier streams from drying out.

“The work done on the mountain for the FIS World Cup follows strict plans and regulations and is approved by the authorities.”

Image: Simon Vollformat on Unsplash

Image: Simon Vollformat on Unsplash

POW’s petition has surpassed its initial target of 35,000 signatories, with a new goal in place to reach 50,000. It calls for the winter sports governing body to implement a target-based sustainability strategy, publish its environmental impact with full transparency, adapt the competition calendar to reduce the impact of travel and to respect the changing climate, and use FIS’s political influence to advocate for climate action.

Following on from this, Protect Our Winters Europe reiterated the need for transparency, after a third-party study by Mission Zero – Kilma Partner (commissioned by Greenpeace) raised concerns about published data on the issue.

The report states: “It can be stated upfront that FIS, with its executive summary on event emissions and the published accessible data, fails to provide a transparent and comprehensible assessment. All calculations, evaluations, derivations, and cross-checks indicate an implausible and underestimated overall evaluation of emissions.”

Responding to the points made by FIS on the petition, Dan Yates, POW’s Director of Partnerships and Initiatives for Europe, says: “We are sorry FIS finds the campaign unattractive, it simply shines a light on what is an unattractive side of skiing, one that should be left in the past.

“Last race season, 500 professional winter sports athletes signed an open letter calling for greater climate action by FIS. Signatories included concerned present and previous FIS competitors, including current alpine racing mega stars Mikaela Shiffrin, Aleksander Aaamodt Kilde, Travis Ganong, along with Olympic cross-country skiing champion Jessie Diggins, and the previous Freeride World our champions Arianna Tricomi and Xavier de le Rue.”

He adds: “If FIS had listened to their calls and become the leader in climate action our sport and our planet needed then, this campaign would not have been required. It is not too late for FIS to take meaningful, transparent, and truly impactful action. You will not find a greater ally in this than POW.”

Image: Andreas from Pixabay

Image: Andreas from Pixabay

With winter sports so reliant on the climatic conditions in order to take place, it is no surprise that the sustainability commitments and initiatives from its governing body are placed under the microscope so often.

“Skiing and snowboarding are at the centre of the climate debate because it is a sport that is embedded in nature and where the effects of climate change are clearly visible,” says Sieff.

“The focus on FIS in comparison to other sectors is therefore not always fair and harms the reputation of a sport that is good for the physical and mental health and transmits values such as respect, teamwork and friendship.”

Seiff adds that FIS recognises its position of influence when it comes to sustainability.

“FIS is aware of its responsibility: our responsibility to athletes and fans, and our responsibility to the planet,” says Seiff. “For our athletes and fans we need to keep making our sport attractive and ensure that our calendar is rich enough that our athletes can make a living from the sport. But we can do this in a way that is even more environmentally friendly.

“This is a team effort and FIS is working tirelessly to support long-term, practical projects that will make a meaningful difference to our athletes, and to the future of the planet. Sport has an incredible power to raise awareness and act as an ambassador for good. We want to use our voice to effect real change.”

“FIS is aware of its responsibility: our responsibility to athletes and fans, and our responsibility to the planet." Susanna Sieff, FIS Sustainability Director

The lack of snow is something that is affecting not just professional skiing and snowboarding, but ski resorts are also suffering from the shortening ski seasons. The French town of La Sambuy, which previously provided the backdrop for a family skiing destination near Mont Blanc in the French Alps, was forced to remove its ski lifts as the lack of snow no longer made it economically justifiable to remain open.

FIS’s appointment of a sustainability director may seem like a step in the right direction, but POW’s Yates remains cautious.

“Until recently there has been no one at FIS to take this role,” explains Yates. “In May 2023 they appointed their first Sustainability Director, Susanna Sieff, perhaps a little late for an organisation that has existed for nearly 100 years. We have had several constructive meetings with Ms Sieff, and they are ongoing.

“POW had not until they were announced by FIS in their response to the POW campaign made these meetings public as they were requested to be an ‘off the record, safe space’ for discussion between both organisations.

“Ultimately, despite these meetings, the lack of concrete actions or commitments to actions with firm timetables by FIS led POW to launch the petition in October.”

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