Greening the Olympics

Greening the Olympics


describes how the environment has become the third pillar of the Olympic Movement in its centenary year

man in wheelchair race

For 16 days in February 1994 the little town of Lillehammer, Norway, hosted the 17th Olympic Winter Games and firmly placed environment on the sporting world's agenda. For the first time, ambitious environmental action was planned and carried out at a major sports event. This represented the start of an important, still continuing, process. Environment has become the third dimension of the Olympics, besides sport and culture.

It is no surprise that environment featured so strongly at the Lillehammer Olympics. Norwegians have a strong culture of affiliation to nature - steeped in historical traditions - brought into sports and recreational activities. They also have a powerful environmental lobby backed by public opinion. A poll during the preparation of the Games showed that 67 per cent of Lillehammer's population considered the environment to be their highest priority, far outdistancing employment, better roads and Norwegian Gold Medals.

The organizers at Lillehammer did not 'go green' painlessly, nor did the area escape from the Games unscarred. Hosting such a big sports event inevitably brings environmental damage. Natural recreational areas are changed into sportscapes and roads are enlarged. Massive resources, space and energy are used for an event lasting just two weeks. The facts and figures show that biological resources and green space were lost at Lillehammer. The Games were certainly not ecologically sustainable.

But there has been a positive long-term effect in the town itself, as well as in the sporting world as a whole. Lillehammer now seems greener than it was before. The city beautification, including tree planting and the architecture of Olympic facilities, is still being looked after with pride. Memories of the Games boost further environmental efforts: there is currently an attempt to stop oil companies putting up neon-lit billboards and day-glo hoardings at local petrol stations. The municipal authorities and the post-Olympic development company Olympia Utvikling Ltd. are attempting to set the various initiatives and municipal environmental responsibilities into the framework of Agenda 21. Moreover, Lillehammer embarked on a process which still benefits and inspires host communities and organizers of sports events elsewhere.

The greening efforts of the Lillehammer Olympic Winter Games were possible only through shared visions, cooperation, and the pooling of money and resources. There were, essentially, three main partners: the environmental authorities, the organizers (including the private sector) and the volunteer environmental organizations. Their priorities and methods differed, but they had a mutual respect and understanding of each others' roles, forming the basis for a constructive atmosphere of intense cooperation - the key to what became the success story of Lillehammer.

An initial environmental policy and an action plan were hammered out based on a proposal from Friends of the Earth in Norway and the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee. The partners found common goals among widely different purposes and enlarged the environmental common ground. This precipitated a process, starting from grassroots, which set managers, politicians and environmental volunteers on a steep learning curve and turned the games into a project-based 'environmental showcase'. Each of the 130 or so clearly defined projects was set to have a lasting effect beyond the 16 days of February.

in wheelchair race

Keen interest

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which stages the Games, quickly recognized the importance of Lillehammer's moves. They had, in the past, been pestered by bad publicity over environmental damage caused by the Olympics to pristine sites and fragile mountain slopes. Several remain in a state of ruin.

Key members of the IOC showed keen interest and endorsed the inclusion of an active environment agenda. It became a factor in selecting Sydney as the host city for the first Olympiad of the third millennium. In August 1995, the Congress of the 100-year Celebrations of the Olympic Movement in Paris recommended amendments to the Olympic Charter to accommodate environment as the third dimension to the Games. Environment was henceforth to be seen as a third pillar, part of the very foundations of the Olympic Movement. As a result, the Sport and Environment Commission was established in March this year, drawing a global membership encompassing environmental experts and athletes, sports administrators and IOC members, to address environmental issues within the Olympic Movement.

Not long after the Lillehammer Games, the IOC and UNEP signed a cooperation agreement, underlining the fundamental common goals of the two organizations and calling for action over sport and the environment. This set the agenda for the formalization of an environment policy, developing evaluation criteria, guidelines, conferences and other joint activities.

The IOC is now addressing the need for environmental protection and stewardship in the selection of the Olympic host cities, and using stringent procedures to find the best facilities for the world's best athletes in environment-friendly venues.

It wants:

- To be sure that the host city will respect the natural environment.

- To ensure that a positive environmental message emerges.

- To ensure that all actions are carried out in accordance with environmental legislation.

- To encourage organizers to go beyond minimum public requirements.

- To explore the candidate city's maximum environmental potential.

The bidding process involves candidate cities creating and presenting an environment programme. Impact analyses have to be carried out, and nature protection areas and important habitats have to be avoided. Re-using facilities; restoring derelict areas; avoiding destructive land use; and minimizing pollution, the consumption of non-renewable resources and the need for transport are all encouraged.

This year, the 11 cities bidding for the 2004 Summer Olympics are striving to create a winning environment programme. A well-made, realistic programme addresses pertinent environmental challenges as well as the needs of athletes and the local community. The environment declaration issued by the winning city becomes a binding document and progress is monitored by the IOC Coordination Commission, while even those who fail to win this particular gold medal are at least left with an excellent environment programme.

Some international sports federations have created their own environmental policies - such as the International Ski Federation's Mainau Manifesto, which strongly states the need for skiing to take the preservation of nature and landscape into account. This policy is now being put to the test: the organizers of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games in 1998 want to keep their alpine downhill skiing course outside a national park, in opposition to the Federation. Extending it into the park would add some 20 seconds to the racing time.

Environmental guidelines needed

This debate exemplifies the balance of power in sport and environment - and the prime role of the Olympic Movement. The sports federations - driven by their sponsors and the media - develop new criteria and challenges. Outdoor sports are gradually moved indoors, and media-friendly criteria cause new demands to be put on the landscape, sports venues and equipment. They set the bottom line. Guidelines are both needed and being called for.

Golf and bobsleigh are both beginning to address the heavy environmental burdens they carry. The European Golf Association has begun an ambitious environment programme while the International Bob and Luge Federation has stopped further construction of new artificially frozen bobsleigh runs and is revitalizing the use of naturally frozen snow, for example at St. Moritz.

Several Olympic sponsors have stated a keen interest in the greening process. Some grasped the opportunity at Lillehammer to present their greenest products and image. In Sydney, sponsors, suppliers and the construction industry are eager to be on the list of supporters of the 'greenest Olympics ever'.

There is talk about setting up an environment and sports fund to finance specific projects. Meanwhile, most of the world's main sports goods producers have already joined their own 'greening' programme, called Eco-Wave, chaired by the dynamic Mazato Mizuno of Japan's Mizuno Corporation.

Sport can bring people and cultures together: nothing, probably, unites Africa or Latin America more than soccer. It can also act as a focus for educational, environmental and developmental activities in disadvantaged communities and thus achieve important social goals. The Mathare Youth Sports Association's continuing role in developing and cleaning up its Nairobi slum area, for example, won a well-deserved UNEP Global 500 Award and is inspiring communities elsewhere.

Sport has perhaps more organizations - everywhere, at all levels and social strata and for all age groups - than any other mass activity. By and large these are effective and resourceful. They form a strong network and are a great resource for social and environmental initiatives. A meeting in February of the Lillehammer Forum on Sport, Environment and Development - jointly organized by the Municipality of Lillehammer, the IOC and UNEP - addressed the value and potential of sport as a catalyst in improving the environment, creating development initiatives and safeguarding peace.

The Olympic movement's educational role is even more important than its direct work in developing sustainable sport. The IOC's main educational exercise is, of course, running environment-friendly Games. This has enormous implications and involves many people from presidents to local citizens. The candidate cities, between them, spend more than a hundred million dollars in the bidding process. Environmental criteria were laid down for more than 9,000 different products at the Lillehammer Games. Such big money creates big interest.

There is now a carefully planned joint education programme with UNEP which focuses on the need for greater knowledge among sports organizers. After a successful advisory IOC conference in Lausanne last summer, and an initiative by the Lillehammer Forum in February, H. E. Pál Schmitt of Hungary, the IOC Sport and Environment Commission's chairman, recently announced that a world congress on sport and environment will be held every two years under the joint sponsorship of the IOC and UNEP. Two training courses for operational level sports administrators, public management and key athletes will be held on different continents, by rotation, each year. This year they are in Asia and Africa. Thus, the Olympic Movement and UNEP hope to master environmental problems through inside education. The athletes are all for it.

Sports can affect the environment through:

Change in land use caused by construction, transportation and other developments.

Construction and development in particularly fragile environments.

Emissions to soil, air and water, including acute poisons.

High and wasteful energy consumption.

Local environmental issues, in particular those that affect or cause uncertainty regarding health, safety, children, the preservation of local commons and recreational opportunities, scenery and natural resource-based trades.

The contribution to biodiversity and ozone depletion, global warming and long-distance air pollution.

Mega-events like the Olympic Games do not necessarily need to harm the environment if:

Environmental requirements are stipulated early in the planning process.

Environmental responsibility is carried by the organizers and felt as a personal duty by the president and CEO.

The authorities, the organizing committee and environmental volunteer organizations cooperate.

The goals are practical and visions and assessment are shared with scientists and environmental volunteer organizations.

Financial implications

By general agreement after the Lillehammer Games, there needs to be a thorough greening of Olympic budgets, though special government financial support may be needed for pilot projects.

The Lillehammer organizers suggested that the proof of their success would lie in the organizers of the next Olympic Games doing a better job. The organizers of the Sydney Games have incorporated stringent environment criteria and a partnership model from the very beginning. Environmental groups have been involved since the bidding process and Sydney has laid out the most comprehensive programme yet. There is backing from public authorities at all levels, unique provision for cooperation between various players and a strong consensus for 'going green'.

Reclaimed industrial wasteland and dump sites will be turned into Olympic parkland and made suitable for habitation and recreation, and for protected wildlife and plants. Photovoltaics will be extensively used for lighting. Storm water runoff will be collected and stored underneath the stadium for later use, saving scarce water supplies and reducing erosion and water pollution. Air conditioning will be achieved through oversized escalator shafts.

The initial price tag is high, but the environmental features help save operating costs. The rethinking has brought ingenious, cheaper and better solutions. Innovative environment-friendly design is setting new standards for industry, while the in-depth life-cycle analysis used to document the environmental impact of the construction projects by tenderers is setting the benchmark for future Olympics. All this will set a permanent mark on Olympic history. Future organizers should find solutions that adapt to local management traditions, public attitudes and their own environmental priorities and needs.

Moving sports events away from the destruction of nature is a huge challenge. So is giving people tools for a sustainable future by using sport as a vehicle for development and a better environment. Going pro-active demands considerable effort by the Olympic Movement and the host cities, a continuously committed leadership and a strong will to do things differently. It has been said that 20 per cent of environmental problems have technological solutions, while the remaining 80 per cent call for social and organizational solutions - doing things differently. The road from destruction to restoration is a rugged one, and plenty of stamina will be needed. But if the sports community continues on the path now laid down, the Olympics - and sport as a whole - is set to become an immensely powerful tool for a better environment.

Olav Myrholt is Project Manager in the Environment Department of Olympia Utvikling, and a member of the IOC Sport and Environment Commission.

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