Can Games Go Green?


By Samantha Spoto

Photo courtesy of Kyle Pearce.

Every two years, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) elects a single city to host the Olympic Games. The last Olympic event took place in 2014, when Sochi, Russia, accommodated athletes from nearly 90 competing countries for the Winter Games.

The IOC awarded Sochi the 2014 Games five years prior, after the city professed to implement an environmentally conscious approach to hosting the 14-day event. Russia claimed to enforce a “zero waste” policy, in which the construction of event venues would follow a green approach.

Despite Sochi’s pledge, organizers of the Games received immense criticism for their failed attempt to protect the ecological landscape of Russia.

The Sochi Olympics took place in one of Russia’s ecologically exuberant areas that has a UNESCO World Heritage site and national park in the proximity. The Games’ infrastructure–that was built to house a mass of competitors, spectators, and reporters, ultimately–threatened the wildlife of the region. To the dismay of many, the promise to preserve Sochi’s flourishing landscape was met with empty assurance.

Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and member of the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (EWNC) explained to TIME that Sochi’s practices jeopardized the open land and the animals that inhabited it. The construction process of Olympic infrastructure impeded migration routes of animals and limited the access to quality drinking water for citizens due to illegal waste dumping.

As a result of these hazardous practices, Sochi suffered a loss of biodiversity. Certain plant and animal species that lived and thrived in the area’s environment met their doom. For example, the Imeretinskaya Lowland, a large agricultural wetland positioned between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, housed several species of birds and unique plant life.

Biologists who were aware of how important this space was for these rare breeds proposed that the Lowlands obtain protected status to ward off human disturbance. Nevertheless, in preparation of the 2014 Olympic Games, the Imeretinskaya Lowland became grounds for large-scale development.

Russian authorities were not pleased with environmental activists who spoke against the construction. One activist, geologist Yevgeny Vitishko, got sentenced to three years in prison for spray-painting a fence in protest.

Environmental activism and outward resistance against the Olympics has proved more successful in other locales. The people of Denver, Colorado, for instance, understood the environmental damages that the Olympic Games brought to ecologically robust areas decades before the Sochi Games.

In 1970, the IOC awarded the 1976 Winter Games to Colorado’s largest city. However, two years after receiving the invitation to host the celebrated international event, the Denver Olympic Organizing Committee (DOOC) declined the offer.

Both citizens and politicians of the Rocky Mountain city agreed that the Olympic Games threatened the environment within Denver and the surrounding areas. In protest, local environmental activists formed a coalition titled Protect Our Mountain Environment (POME) to rally against Olympic development in the Rockies.

Government officials spoke candidly about the Games as well. Bob Jackson, State Representative at the time, delivered a statement to the Associated Press regarding the decision to decline the hosting title: “We ought to say to the nation and the world, ‘We’re sorry, we are concerned about the environment… Take the Games elsewhere.'”

Other concerned politicians spoke of the Olympic representatives’ blatant neglect to address the questions and concerns regarding the environmental risks the building of infrastructure for the Games would cause. Richard Lamm, the governor of Colorado from 1975-1987, told SKI Magazine, “Every time I ask a question about ecology, the Olympic people tell me, ‘Don’t worry, we are going to take care of that.'”

Despite pledges, not all cities care to protect their environments like Denver did during the 1970s. Sochi’s unmet vows to host a green event appears to be a common quality of Olympic host cities.

The IOC awarded London the Olympic Games in 2012 and, similar to Sochi, the city representatives promised to embark on a green and sustainable staging of events. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) proclaimed that, “London is the first summer Host City to embed sustainability in its planning… we want to use the Games as a catalyst for change.”

Part of the construction for the London Olympics included installing a wildlife habitat into Olympic Park. An old industrial area filled with toxic soil and defunct factories was cleaned up and converted into Britain’s largest human-made “wet woodland,” according to USA Today. The presence of animals like birds, swans, rodents, and dragonflies was documented in 2012.

Nevertheless, a London environmental watchdog published a post-Games report which concluded that the Olympics did not live up to the intended sustainability efforts. Energy management issues were especially highlighted; The Guardian reported that the Games employed “minimal use” of alternative fuels. Although green techniques were implemented in designing the facilities, it was discovered that 40 percent of venues failed to utilize said energy-saving plans. In addition, the watchdog discovered excessive use of generator deployment, not to mention lights left on and cars idling.

Cities that bid to host the Olympics allege that they will embark on an environmentally conscious journey in preparation of the events because it increases their likelihood of being selected by the IOC. However, as evident from the recent realities of Russia and the UK, executing such promises appears easier said than done. Once the IOC selects a host city, no system investigates the progress of their commitments.

Jay Coakley, a professor at the University of Colorado (Colorado Springs) told the National Journal that “The IOC and FIFA understand that one of the big objections to these mega-events is that they destroy the environment, so they put in these [environmental] requirements. But then what do they do? They can’t enforce them. There’s no accountability after the fact.”

Rio de Janerio will host the Summer Olympics in August of 2016. Like Sochi and London, Rio too claims it will provide “Green Games for a Blue Planet.”

The Brazilian city promised to use clean energy, clear the city’s polluted streets, preserve its natural spaces, and upgrade dilapidated infrastructure such as buildings and public transportation. With the Games advancing, Rio is following in the footsteps of its Olympic Host predecessors. They have failed on several accounts to implement sustainable strategies.

If factors stay the same, the future of environmentally sound Olympic Games will continue to be an unfulfilled promise, causing the long-term residents and wildlife of these host countries to suffer most.