Ice Dancing, Artificial Snow and Other Thoughts on the Winter Olympics

Figure skating, ice dancing, bobsledding and fake snow take center stage as I look at a variety of topics related to the recent Winter Olympics.

The 2022 Winter Olympics wrapped up nine days ago, concluding a global sporting event often overshadowed by issues beyond sports. An ongoing global pandemic, the host nation’s deplorable human rights record, the threat of war in eastern Europe and yet another Russian doping scandal inspired as many headlines as the medal counts.

Those issues have been thoroughly dissected in the public forum, leaving little room for additional meaningful commentary. Instead, I want to look at some under-the-radar news that caught my attention during the Games. From quad jumps to ice dancing’s status as a sport to the costs of a bobsled and fake snow, here is a look at the hidden implications of the most recent Winter Games.

Figure Skating No-Nos

Buried beneath Russian superstar skater Kamila Valieva’s failed drug test and the “quad revolution” ushered into women’s skating by Valieva and her teammates was the rule that female figure skaters cannot perform quadruple jumps in their short programs. The International Skating Union does require male skaters to perform one triple or quadruple jump in their short programs. However, the ISU limits women to only performing triple jumps. At the same time, the ISU allows women to perform quadruple jumps in the longer, more exhausting free skate portion.

No Quads for You

The reasons for the short program quad ban remain unclear. Perhaps the ISU fears that women’s skating will turn into a contest of who can perform the most quads. Russian skater Alexandra Trusova landed an impressive five quads during her free skate, but only finished with a silver medal. Apparently, Trusova’s routine was lacking in artistic expression. Former Olympic skater and current NBC commentator Johnny Weir said Trusova, “really makes zero effort at the artistry.” Former competitive skater and current Slate columnist Chris Schleicher wrote that Trusova’s free skate made him “feel nothing” and that “if that program was the future of women’s figure skating, I want no part of it.”

Russian figure skater Alexandra Trusova
Russian figure skater Alexandra Trusova (

A desire to balance artistry and athleticism might motivate the ISU’s decision to keep the short program quad-free. But placing a ceiling on what athletes can do in competition limits the natural growth of a sport. If judges wanted to see more artistic expression from skaters, they could give greater weight to the component score, which accounts for skating skills, footwork, emotional resonance, composition and interpretation of the music. But telling athletes they cannot utilize their full athleticism makes no sense.

No Jumps at All

Similar limitations exist in two-person figure skating. At first glance, ice dancing looks very much like pairs figure skating. But in the former competition, skaters are not allowed to perform jumps, lift their partners overhead or throw their partners in the air. In other words, ice dancing appears to be a less physically challenging version of pairs skating.

That’s not to say that ice dancing isn’t challenging. Ice dancers perform complicated step sequences, spins and (non-overhead) lifts. And they do it all while gliding on metal blades across a sheet of ice. But limiting what ice dancers can do in relation to pairs skaters raises the question of whether or not ice dancing should count as a sport.

There are no bobsledding or downhill skiing events for the fastest competitor under fifty miles per hour. There are no ice hockey matches in which players are forbidden from skating backward. The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger” not “fast but not too fast, high but not too high, strong but not too strong.”

The sport in which two people perform a choreographed routine on ice skates and are rewarded for the greatest athletic prowess and artistic expression is pairs figure skating. Ice dancing does require significant physical ability. But it is not a sport because ice dancers are not allowed to exhibit their full athletic potential.*

Ice dancing gold medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron perform a non-overhead lift
Ice dancing gold medalists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron perform a non-overhead lift (

The Bobsledding Arms Race

During NBC’s coverage of luge, skeleton and bobsledding, the announcers repeated one phrase over and over again as black-, red- and gold-clad sliders zipped down the track: “German technology.” In the ten sliding events, German athletes captured sixteen out of the thirty medals awarded, including nine out of ten golds.

Sliding sports are huge in Germany. The country is home to one-quarter of the world’s bobsled tracks. And that German technology? As other nations struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic, Germans trained in BMW’s bobsled simulation, which includes the Beijing Olympic track. In addition to BMW, German winter athletes have also secured sponsorships with Adidas, Allianz and Toyota Germany.

Such financial support goes a long way in a sport like bobsledding, where a two-person sled can cost $85,000 and a four-man sled goes for more than $450,000. Canada’s four-man team saves money by competing in an old German sled they bought second-hand. And in especially stark contrast to Germany, the Jamaican bobsled team did practice runs alongside a highway. Jamaica also spent $40,000 to get its four-man sled and gear to Beijing and back. And that price was a discount. Jamaica shipped its gear before the team even qualified to avoid paying triple the cost for faster delivery.

Does the Sled Make the Man?

Unequal access to equipment and training facilities is nothing new in global sports (see my previous interview with Dr. Sigmund Loland). But it’s hard to find a better example than bobsledding where the very tools needed to compete create such a high bar for entry. Even the most disadvantaged athletes can usually obtain shoes, some balls and room to run and play. Not so when competing means shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In addition to their technological advantages, German sliders are assuredly excellent athletes. But in such an expensive sport, with such vast differences in technological support, it’s hard not to wonder how much bobsled, luge and skeleton test the athletes versus their equipment.

Hidden Costs of the Olympics

It’s not just the sliding sports. Winter events, in general, tend to be more expensive than summer sports. Sleds, artificial snow and lift tickets don’t come cheap. And increasingly warmer global temperatures mean less real snow and a greater reliance on the artificial version to keep winter sports going.

A snowmaking machine makes artificial snow before the 2022 Winter Olympics
A snowmaking machine makes artificial snow before the 2022 Winter Olympics (

Beijing already has very limited snowfall in the winter. For that reason, over 90% of the snow at the 2022 Games was fake. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s assertion that “Artificial snow offers consistent and predictable slope conditions,” many athletes weren’t too happy about the fake stuff. As British freestyle skier Laura Donaldson observed, “If freestyle super pipes are formed from snow-making machines in a poor season, the walls of the pipe are solid, vertical ice and the pipe floor is solid ice. This is dangerous for athletes.”

Money, Resources, Diversity

Artificial snow also requires additional energy and resources. In evaluating Beijing as a host site, the IOC noted that the city’s “reliance on artificial snowmaking would require [the] diversion of water from existing reservoirs and may impact other land uses.” In other words, fake snow is an unecological solution to an ecological problem.

Then there’s the cost and its impact. Olympics aside, snowmaking equipment can cost millions of dollars. One New York ski resort has invested $13 million in such equipment over the past forty years. And that figure doesn’t account for the costs of energy, labor and pumping thousands of gallons of water per minute to operate snowmaking machines. Thanks to continued climate change, a ski resort in Ontario, Canada expects to double its snowmaking efforts by 2050.

Naturally, these rising costs get passed on to skiers through higher lift ticket and resort prices. A United States National Ski Areas Association survey found that over 87.5% of ski area visitors were white, compared to 1.5% Black. And over 63% of skiers and 55% of snowboarders earned more than $75,000, nearly twice the median American income.

In other words, as climate change progresses, expect winter sports to get more costly and exclusive and less green and diverse.

*-For this reason, rhythmic gymnastics and racewalking are also not sports. For more on this topic, see What Is a Sport? and The Characteristics of a Sport.