Published: February 27, 2014
Like many skeleton racers, I stumbled upon the sport largely by accident when I saw it on TV during the 2002 Olympic Games. I was immediately hooked - the speed, danger, and eccentricity of skeleton appealed to me in a way that no other sport ever had.
Twelve years later I am in Sochi representing the United States as an Olympic skeleton athlete, a huge honor, and also a great time to reflect on the history and future of my chosen sport. Beyond my own involvement, I think about the rich history of skeleton and the beautiful places where sliders have trained and competed for over a century. With the warming temperatures here at the Olympic Games, like many of the venues we train and compete in, I also can't help but wonder if skeleton, like many winter sports, is at risk.
It's hard to wrap my mind around the prospect that if trends continue, a 7 degree global temperature increase could melt snow packs in nearly every competition venue by 2100.
This is particular relevant to sliding sports, because as winter temperatures become unstable, our venues must increasingly rely on expensive, artificial refrigeration to maintain the track. 100 percent natural skeleton tracks are already a thing of the past - with one exception.
St. Moritz, Switzerland is home to the most prestigious track on the World Cup Skeleton circuit. It is the birthplace of the sliding sports - skeleton, bobsled, and luge, and the oldest competitive sliding track in the world. It's our Monaco Grand Prix, and my favorite track.
The legendary 1,800 meter track was constructed in 1884 between St. Moritz and the neighboring town of Celerina. It's 10 original turns are still in use today, expanded with an additional nine curves that have evolved over time. The track is constructed by local residents who sculpt each curve by hand, shaping the ice to perfection and dousing it with water. Each curve has a name, from the infamous Horseshoe corner to those which honor the great sliders throughout history; Nash, Dixon, Martineau, Sachs, and Portego. In St. Moritz, tradition runs deep.
The racing season doesn't start until January and is typically over by March. With warmer weather, it's likely to grow even shorter in the coming decades.
I fear that if trends continue, it will be too expensive and short of a season for the community to invest in creating and maintaining the track.
The loss of an iconic venue like St. Moritz would be a tremendous blow to sliding sports.
Even our artificial tracks will face the impacts of climate change.
Increasing refrigeration costs could make an already expensive sport prohibitive to new athletes trying to get a start. The cost of refrigeration alone can reach thousands of dollars per day for the venues, and many of these tracks are subsidized by local and state governments.
If costs continue to rise, this critical source of funding that supports our Olympic venues, and the Olympic skeleton team in general, could be cut.
It's not hard to imagine a future where sliding sports are unsustainable, because of dwindling winters, lack of athletes, and the tremendous cost of building and maintaining venues.
I am hopeful that humans have the potential to innovate and develop energy solutions for safe, clean, and renewable fuel. Technology is evolving rapidly, and the pace of change itself is increasing. There could be new solutions on the table tomorrow that seemed out of reach last year.
Science leads to innovation and new business, and people will invest and adopt alternatives as they become cheaper and more widely available.
With that in mind, I feel hopeful, for St. Moritz and the future of sliding sport. Being here at the 2014 Winter Olympics, with the lack of snow and summer-like temperatures, I've seen that people are inspired to care about winter sport and the reasons why these unique events might be in danger. While Sochi may be subtropical, most of our iconic winter venues are not.
Kyle Tress, skeleton athlete on Team USA, just competed in the Sochi Olympics 2014.