Putting our identity on ice

As the snow piles up this week, and as Canadians celebrate the World Cup skiing success of one of our own, it seems appropriate to reflect on the gradual decline of one of our great pastimes — and what it means to the greater whole of winter activity in this country.

As the snow piles up this week, and as Canadians celebrate the World Cup skiing success of one of our own, it seems appropriate to reflect on the gradual decline of one of our great pastimes — and what it means to the greater whole of winter activity in this country.

And as one more warning — albeit minor in the grand scheme of things — to the global warming naysayers.

On Sunday, Erin Mielzynski of Guelph, Ont., won Canada’s first World Cup alpine skiing slalom victory in more than four decades.

On Monday, papers from coast to coast carried stories about Mielzynski’s success.

Those same newspapers also carried stories about the diminishing breadth of winter and how that most dramatically affects Canadian life.

A study by a team of Canadian climate scientists found that outdoor skating will be a thing of the past in 50 years in this nation, if we continue on the current global warming trend. Over the last half century, the skating season has narrowed. And in some areas, municipalities have already resorted to ice plants for outdoor rinks (it’s cheaper to refrigerate outdoor rinks than it is to build indoor facilities).

The study focused on the viability of outdoor rinks in the future, based on historical trends. But its findings — that our climate will be too warm to sustain outdoor ice — carries dire warnings for any number of winter sports.

So the 42 years between gold medals in women’s slalom ski racing may be the norm — or may even be unusually frequent — in the future, if we have fewer ski areas because of changing weather patterns.

Mielzynski talks about how she is the product of a modest program with minimal facilities. “Europeans don’t know us,” she said after her victory. “We’ve got an escarpment, not mountains, and it doesn’t take long to hike up.” (In Ontario today, the grass is already greening and the tulips are rising.)

In the future, when what little snow we receive simply melts, there won’t be any point in hiking up to the top of the escarpment to ski down. Never mind that global warming means that much of our nation will become significantly drier.

Losing the ability to enjoy winter activities doesn’t mean we need to become a sedentary nation, of course. We’ll simply need to learn to replace skating, skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and the whole sledding culture with other activities.

But much of what we define as Canadian is tied to our ability to adapt and flourish in the winter, from sports to technology.

In particular, we have taken our passion for winter activities and turned it into a culture of success.

At the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, Canadians won 26 medals, 14 of them gold (the highest number of any nation).

Central Alberta alone was represented by eight athletes or coaches in some of the 15 different sports that make up the Winter Games roster.

And a host of young athletes from Central Albertan — and their coaches and supporters — are preparing now for the next Winter Olympics in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.

By contrast, there is an outside chance that one or two Central Albertans, at best, will qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. And the Summer Games feature 26 sports and more than twice as many countries and athletes (2,600 athletes competed in Vancouver).

But we lack the culture of competition intrinsic in building athletes for summer sports, precisely because nature has given us a much better training ground for winter sports.

Of course, we’re just talking about sports and recreation.

And man has been adapting to changing environmental conditions for thousands of years. What’s a little global warming in the face of our resourcefulness?

The global warming naysayers would simply argue that any environmental changes are cyclical, not the result of the tonnes of pollutants we pour into the atmosphere.

The majority of us should know better, and mourn a way of life being chipped away by man’s greed and lack of discipline.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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