Environmental impact of the Olympics

29th Mar 2018

Every few years, countries vie for the chance to host the Olympics. They market their ability to wow spectators, accommodate and pamper athletes, and welcome the world with open arms. The honour is internationally significant – it puts the host city on the map and gives people from all over the world a chance to experience and appreciate that country’s culture.

Olympic games foster healthy competition between nations, sometimes even thawing historically frigid relationships. Once a country is chosen to host the momentous event, massive preparations begin.

It is no small undertaking to build the infrastructure necessary to accommodate thousands of people rushing to one place for a brief period of time. Giant arenas, new transit routes, and venues for unique sporting events must all be built, usually from scratch; using old sites doesn’t foster the wow factor that a host country aims for.

During the past few decades, the countries that have hosted the Olympics have marketed their efforts to “green” the games, pushing for carbon neutrality. They power venues with renewable energy, make sure recycling bins are ubiquitous, and purchase carbon offsets for the unavoidable emissions, such as air travel, which, alone amounts to millions of tonnes of carbon emissions.

Olympics are extremely energy intensive events, and countries often find that their ambitious goals are harder to attain than they had initially thought. The 2012 London games aimed to be the “Greenest Olympics ever” but ultimately fell short. Their original goals were scaled back; including using 25% recycled materials for all construction projects.

The Sochi Winter Games in 2014 marketed its efforts as “zero waste,” but reports of illegal dumping, damage to the local water supply, and blocked wildlife corridors due to construction in an ecologically pristine area angered environmentalists.

South Korea, the host of this year’s Winter Games in PyeongChang, received criticism over the clearing of a mountain forest for new ski slopes. The area included some rare tree species up to 500 years old. Still, their renewable energy portfolio for the 2018 games was impressive, including wind, solar, and geothermal power.

Sustainability was a major part of South Korea’s Olympic bid in 2011. According to Hyeona Kim, Senior Project Manager for POCOG (PyeongChang Organising Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games), in a 2017 interview, “PyeongChang 2018, together with Gangwon, the host provincial government, has funded and is funding wind farms that will produce more than the minimum amount of electricity need to power the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” PyeongChang 2018 wanted the games to be “net positive,” reducing even more carbon than was emitted during the games.

Though the games aim to be greener every time they are hosted, a major problem remains with the actual site. After the games are over, venues are often left to dilapidate. Rio is the most recent example of this – Olympic size pools filled with dead mosquitoes, an abandoned golf course with too few visitors to fund its maintenance, and the Maracana stadium’s dried grass field filled with ruts and holes.

The tourism boom countries hope will manifest after they host the games rarely does, and they are often left with debt and barely usable, oversized venues that are prohibitively expensive to maintain.

Beijing has taken these concerns into account for its 2022 games and has invested heavily in green technologies for the event. According to Scientific American, the Beijing National Stadium “includes a rainwater collection arrangement, a natural ventilation system and a clear roof with inflatable cushions made from Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, a kind of plastic that increases light and heat penetration.”

They also constructed the Water Cube, a building that can be converted into a shopping mall and leisure area once the games are over.
The Olympics are something just about everyone can get behind. They are a display of sportsmanship at its finest – countries offering their best athletes to compete on the world stage, receive international commendation, and foster a sense camaraderie between competitors. There are many things to enjoy about such events, while also keeping in mind their long-term impact. The fact is that, soon, due to climate change, many countries will be too warm to be able to host the winter games.

The Olympic Committee wants to be fair in allowing different countries to host, but after seeing so many Olympic parks in ruin, ecosystems forever altered, and tourist dollars stagnant after the fact, it begs the question of whether such a massive new project is worthwhile for a two-week event. The Olympics are a great diversion, but at what ecological cost?

Sarah Sakeena Marshall
English Language Teacher/Environmental Columnist

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