One of the venues of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, China


Beijing Winter Olympics: brought to you by Planet Earth

From alpine skiing to bobsleigh and curling, geology is everywhere at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The Winter Olympics, more than just a sports gathering

When athletes arrived in Beijing in early February to compete in this year’s Winter Olympics, most were probably unaware of how geology underpins this event. From the steep slopes which propel athletes down the mountainside to the athletes’ sporting equipment, geology is everywhere!

The 2022 Winter Olympics are being held in the Beijing-Zhangjiakou region until 20 February. Whereas the ice and snowboarding events will be held in and near Beijing, the competitions for luge, skeleton, bobsleigh and alpine skiing will take place in the Xiaohaituo Mountain area and the remaining skiing events in the Zhangjiakou region, northwest of Beijing.

This entire area is located in what geologists call the North China Craton, a stable, relatively immobile area of the Earth's crust that forms the nuclear mass of a continent. This particular craton is one of the largest on the eastern Eurasian continent - with a total area of 1,700,000 km2. It has borne witness to a series of geological events that include intense volcanism, the formation of sedimentary basins, the creation and closure of a short-lived ocean as well as continental collision which saw one continental plate slide under the other in a process known as subduction and the formation new volcanic structures.

In fact, the North China Craton contains one of the longest, most complex records of magmatism, sedimentation and deformation on Earth, spanning the interval from the Eoarchaean (3,800 million years ago) to the present. This provides geologists with an almost unique insight into the tectonic plate processes that create and destroy continents and oceans. 

Geological map



Geological map of the Beijing-Zhangjaikou area showing the Olympic sites and the rocks related to the sites

Figure 1: (a) Geological map of the Beijing-Zhangjaikou area showing the Olympic sites and the rocks related to the sites. Colours represent different rock types and the ages when they were formed. I: Location of national stadium, national aquatics centre and national speed skating oval (Beijing downtown); II: location of national alpine ski centre and national sliding centre (Yanqing District of Beijing); III: location of nordic centre, biathlon centre and genting snow park (Chongli County of Zhangjiakou). Numbers represent rocks associated with the Olympic sites; b) cross section along line A-B showing surface relief and how rock units are disposed in depth. C)  Chronostratigraphic chart showing the time distribution of the rocks related to the 2022 Beijing-Zhangjiakou Winter Olympic sites. Copyright: (Li, et al., 2022)

Although the Beijing-Zhangjiakou region displays a complex geological history spanning more than 4 000 million years (Ma), researchers have been able to date rocks as old as 2 600 Ma (Neoarchean) and as young as 20 Ma (Cenozoic). These rocks have recorded the series of geological events that occurred during this period and are regarded by researchers as an analogue to the geological history of the entire North China Craton.

In the area that is hosting the Winter Olympics, athletes in the National Stadium, National Aquatics Centre and National Speed Skating Oval are competing on infrastructure built over Quaternary (less than 2.5 million years) sediments which cover ancient metamorphic rocks (<1 500 million years). About 40 km southwest of there lies the Fangshan UNESCO Global Geopark, which holds a complete series of rock formations formed over 3 500 million years. It is home to the world-famous ‘Peking man’, an extinct hominin of the Homo erectus species whose fossilized bones were found in 1921 in the Zhoukoudian cave system that is now inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 

The luge, skeleton and bobsleigh competitions are being held at the National Alpine Ski Centre and National Sliding Centre. Here, athletes compete against a mountainous backdrop made of Mesozoic strata that mainly dates from the Upper Jurassic (~145 million years ago); it forms sequences of conglomerates, sandstones and siltstones. The region is home to the Yanqing UNESCO Global Geopark, which is famous for its abundant silicified wood, dinosaur footprints and a section of the Great China Wall.

Landscape in Yanqing UNESCO Global Geopark
Landscape in Yanqing UNESCO Global Geopark, China

Several skiing events are taking place in the Nordic centre, Biathlon Centre and Genting Snow Park, which are located in the more mountainous region of Zhangjaikou. Here, the geology is even more complex. The snow on which athletes are sliding their skis covers 2 500 million years of metamorphic rocks, such as gneisses and eclogites which formed deep in the Earth’s crust, along with much younger volcanic rocks such as basalts from the Neogene (~23 million years old).  These rocks have all been deformed and uplifted by a series of mountain-building geological events known as orogenesis or orogeny.

Geological resources are powering the Olympics

In addition to having created a beautiful landscape, the geology of the Olympics is also very present in the athletes’ equipment.

Curling is arguably the most obvious example of geological material in an Olympic sport. Curling involves sliding stones that weigh around 18 kg some 45 m through the ice with the objective of getting them as close as possible to its centre. These stones are handcrafted in a single workshop located in a small Scottish village south of Glasgow in the UK called Mauchline; they are all made of a rare rock taken from the Isle of Ailsa Craig, a 99-hectare volcanic island, 16 km west of mainland Scotland. This rare rock is a micro-granite, a rock formed by the cooling of magma inside the Earth’s crust which has two minerals that lend it the perfect characteristics for use in curling, namely riebeckite and arfvedsonite. These two minerals make the curling stones both resistant to impact and highly elastic – a property which allows materials to return to their original shape and size after having been deformed. The remaining minerals, mainly quartz and feldspar, have a low conductivity which enables the ice to remain at the right temperature for the stone to slide.

Island of Ailsa Craig, Scotland, where all the curling stones used in the Olympic Games are quarried from
The island of Ailsa Craig, Scotland, where all the curling stones used in the Olympic Games are quarried from
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An athlete sliding a curling stone on an ice track
An athlete sliding a curling stone on an ice track.
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Apart from curling, many other sports feature in the Winter Olympics, all of which need mineral resources to perform. Interestingly enough, the Winter Olympics host country, China, is the biggest source of most of these resources. Let’s take the example of bobsleigh, a sport where athletes slide down an iced curvy track at great speeds inside a sleigh. Although original sleighs were made of wood and steel, modern sleighs are a combination of light metals, steel runners and an aerodynamic composite body. Usually made of aluminium, these light metals are obtained from the minerals diaspore, boehmite and gibbsite which comprise bauxite ore. Australia, China and Guinea are the world’s largest producers of bauxite.

Athletes sliding down a bobsleigh track in a sleigh mainly made of aluminium
Athletes sliding down a bobsleigh track in a sleigh mainly made of aluminium
Bauxite mining & ore
Bauxite mining & ore. Bauxite is a sedimentary rock with a high content in aluminium due to the presence of the minerals gibbsite, boehmite and diaspore.
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Another ubiquitous presence in the Winter Olympics is ski equipment. Whereas the ski poles are made of aluminium and tungsten, of which China is the world's largest supplier, the skis have a wooden core and are coated with Titanal, an aluminum alloy combining titanium and vanadium of which China is the largest producer. 

What about the snow? Well, when meteorological conditions don’t provide enough snow, the artificial variety can be created at considerable environmental cost. A very specific compound is needed to make sure that the water freezes at surface temperatures: silver iodide, an inorganic compound derived from silver and potassium, both mining elements. The largest producers of silver and potassium are Mexico and Canada respectively.

UNESCO and its mandate in the Earth Sciences

We have seen how geodiversity has provided the Winter Olympics with a multitude of goods and services that range from the athlete’s sports equipment to the artificial snow.

As the only United Nations organization with a mandate to support research and capacity-building in Earth Sciences, UNESCO’s International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme has been supporting a wide range of projects which are tackling challenges such as the need to preserve the Earth’s resources for future generations by fostering sustainable mining practices, or the need to mitigate the impact of global warming and the risks of geological hazards such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Through the International Geoscience Programme (IGCP), UNESCO and the International Union of Geological Sciences have been promoting collaborative research projects that bring together thousands of Earth scientists from around the world in a cooperative spirit. There are currently 58 ongoing IGCP projects being delivered by hundreds of researchers from 91 countries. Themes include geothermal resources for the energy transition, the impact of artisanal and small-scale gold mining in the Amazon or studying the water resources in West-Central Africa.

 The other branch of UNESCO’s mission in the Earth Sciences consists in UNESCO Global Geoparks. These are individual geographical areas where sites and landscapes of international geological significance are managed through a holistic approach blending protection, education and sustainable development. There are currently 169 geoparks in 44 countries, with China being home to 41 of these.


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Harrison, R. K., Stone, P., & Cameron, I. B. (1987). Geology, petrology and geochemistry of Ailsa Craig, Ayrshire. British Geological Service.

Kusky, T. M., Windley, B. F., & Zhai, M.-G. (2007). Tectonic evolution of the North China Block: from orogen to craton to orogen. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 1-34.

Li, P., Wan, Y., Xie, H., Wilde, S. A., Dong, C., & Liu, D. (2022). Geology of the 2022 Winter Olympic sites, Beijing-Zhangjiakou, China: An analogue of the North China Craton. International Geology Review.