The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio were supposed to be a beacon for sustainability. In their bid to host the event, Rio submitted plans stating that they would invest in much needed sustainable infrastructure to get ready for the games, sourcing food sustainably for athletes, improving the public transportation infrastructure, and revitalizing the heavily polluted Guanabara Bay.
The opening ceremony even featured a poignant video pointing to the dire consequences of climate change if worldwide temperatures increase beyond 1.5 degrees. Instead, the games have been wrought with problems, including contaminated water and sewage issues, shoddy building construction, and the feared Zika virus.
During the past few decades, the Olympic Games have come under scrutiny for displacing people and breaking promises in preparation for the games. Before the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, many residents were permanently driven out of their homes without any compensation. Since then, the state-sponsored doping scandal came to light, barring many athletes from participating in the games, and causing some to wonder if this year’s Olympics will reflect who really is the best.
In a country where the biodiverse Amazon rainforest is subject to exorbitant amounts of felling, discussing the dire consequences of excess carbon emissions seems hypocritical, and exposes how much of the discussions about sustainability taking place are for face value.
In fact, there was harsh criticism of the climate video showed at the opening ceremony, as it swiftly brought the mood from celebratory to sombre. At the end of the day, the luxury accommodations and bombastic parades common at the Olympics do not coincide with sustainable practices. Unless the millions of kilowatt-hours that turn on the bright lights are being produced by renewable energy, it’s mostly just talk.
Host countries spend billions getting their cities ready for the millions of people expected to storm in to watch the world’s most talented athletes compete for gold medals. Rio de Janeiro added ten miles to the subway system, though construction was completed so close to the Games that safety concerns remain; created a bike path (part of which collapsed just four months after being constructed); and invested in a bus rapid transit system. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes received harsh criticism for approving construction of a golf course in an environmentally protected area of the city when two others were already available for use.
The $400 million cleanup of Guanabara Bay also fell short of promises, with estimates ranging from 20-50% of raw sewage being treated, when 80% was the commitment. According to ThinkProgress, “It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong with the promised cleanup of the Guanabara Bay. In all likelihood, it can be attributed to a range of problems: ill-fated ambition, political corruption, complacent public servants at all levels.” Athletes competing in water sports such as sailing, rowing, and open water swimming were warned not to let the water into their mouths because toxin levels were 1.7 million times higher than what the US and Europe would deem “worrisome”.
In fact, according to the Independent, “At those concentrations, swimmers and athletes who ingest just three teaspoons of water are almost certain to be infected with viruses that can cause stomach and respiratory illnesses and, more rarely, heart and brain inflammation – although whether they actually fall ill depends on a series of factors including the strength of the individual’s immune system.”
The Olympics will never be perfect; to build large arenas, other buildings have to be moved, people have to be displaced, and plans will sometimes have to change, but at a time when the international community is watching closely, and athletes have to be in the best shape of their lives and completely focused, leaders spearheading the construction and revitalization of an area should display commitment to the core values expressed when they applied to host the games. In fact, the word ‘environment’ and its derivatives were the second most used words in Rio’s Olympic bid, behind ‘security’.
Many international entities want to display commitment to climate goals and show that they are on the path towards sustainability. Rio pledged to plant 11,000 trees, one for each athlete at the games, but when thousands are being cut each day from one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, such pledges ring hollow. Climate change has to do with more than just carbon; it has to do with justice, infrastructure, and everyday habits, and when the international community gathers for sport, every entity should be doing its part to address the issue, or else, as sea levels rise, we may see the refugee team grow even larger in years to come.
Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy