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Expert Opinions

Climate is calling: A conversation with Italian World Champion skier Isolde Kostner

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Isolde Kostner, a multi-time world champion in alpine skiing, the first Italian to win the Downhill Skiing World Cup, winner of three Olympic medals, and the Italian with the most podiums won in the World Cup, is a great connoisseur and enthusiast of mountains around the world. Her work and passion have led her to witness firsthand the effects of climate change on the mountain ecosystem over the past 20 years. In this conversation with Lyxor, she discusses how mountains have transformed, the consequences that these changes have had on the world of skiing and winter sports, and why it is urgent to act to protect the mountains.

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Climate is calling: A conversation with Italian World Champion skier Isolde Kostner

Finance and alpine skiing may seem far apart, but they actually have much in common. Preparation, concentration, risk management, the ability to pick the right direction and time, speed, and leadership. All of this combines with the growing attention to the impact of climate change. What do these concepts mean to you?

First, a fundamental element for an athlete is to set goals. In the case of the Olympics (every four years), World Championships (every two years) and the World Cup (every year), these are medium to long term goals. The attention of an athlete is then focused on achieving that goal, through physical and mental preparation, training, rest, and diet. All to get to the best shape possible.

Athletes must make decisions. For example, in downhill, my discipline, you need to know how to pick the right moment to start a turn, and when making it, even a few hundredths of a second can be key.

Finally, every athlete tries to win and become a leader. Winning is hard but staying on top and being a long-lasting leader is much harder. And in this context, I would say that leadership doesn't just mean being first, but also having the ability and potential to drive the team, set a good example and give input and advice in training. These are all characteristics that are close to the investment world as well.

And then there is the attention to the environment: climate change is in front of everyone’s face and both finance and sport have an important role to play in changing its path and preventing further irreparable damage.

How have you seen the mountains change over the course of your life and your career?

I was born in the mountains, and I have lived there since I was born, the mountains are my passion. In the last few years, I have witnessed profound changes in the weather: violent thunderstorms are becoming more and more common – while they had hardly ever occurred before – resulting in avalanches and floods. This summer in South Tyrol, the fire services registered a 30% increase in the number of weather-related interventions compared to last year.

For several years, I have also witnessed a considerable change in the mountain landscape. The snow cycle has changed and the snow is now much harder, more aggressive and – despite what you might think – more icy in winter than it was 20 years ago, so much so that developments in ski design and manufacture are moving towards a better grip on ice.

Another real example, that of Marmolada in the Dolomites, just a few steps from my home. When I was a child, I used to see it white, snow-covered even in summer and with a thick and wide glacier. Today, there is more ice than snow, and the ice is increasingly gray in color.

Another worrying example is the Forni Glacier in Alta Valtellina, which has been literally collapsing for at least 15 years due to the phenomenon of "darkening" – pollution makes the formerly white glaciers darker and darker, a factor that affects the acceleration of their melting because they absorb more sunlight. 

Even plastic particles have been found on some glaciers, a very upsetting phenomenon since glaciers are an important source of water for the whole mountain ecosystem and feed the environment and the fauna of the mountain itself.

Moving on to the world of skiing and mountain sports competitions: what changes have you seen?

A tangible phenomenon is the shortening of the ski runs. Thirty years ago, at the Stelvio Pass we could ski in July on all the trails all the way to the bottom. In the last few years, however, we only ski on the highest part of the slopes. In Italy, it is no longer possible to train on long ski slopes and this has led many athletes, even by the end of the 90's, to go to train to South America in August, where much longer runs are available.

The organizers of large sporting events have witnessed the degradation of the environment in which they have always worked and, over the years, their interest in sustainability and environmental protection has grown. The outlook of organizers of large events is totally different from before.

A striking example is the construction of slopes for ski races. Until the beginning of the 2000s, new tracks were built for competitions, with negative consequences for the environment after the event. An example is the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, which left a "ghost" bobsled track at the end of the event, no longer suitable for reuse and obviously of significant dimensions.

Today, however, the concept of circular economy has taken center stage in this sector as well. This means that all the material used for a given event is then reused on other occasions. It's a process that starts even before planning an event: the organizers know that not following sustainable practices means almost "automatically" being excluded from the event assignment.

A good example is Val Gardena's candidacy for the next World Cup, in 2029, where it was proposed to use the existing slopes used in previous events (World Cup races).  It’s a "diktat" that is also valid for the Milan-Cortina 2026 Olympics: from the very beginning of their organization, it was decided that they should be sustainable in economic, social, and environmental terms.