Index of Articles
OLYMPICS; Greenest Games
Ever? Not! (February 2002)
Nobody Wins If Nature Loses:
Environmental risks posed by 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah (Summer 2001)
Nobody Wins If Nature Loses:
Environmental risks posed by 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah
By Martin A. Lee
Originally published by the San Francisco Bay
Salt Lake City Olympic bid executives were furious when they learned
that Nagano, Japan, had beaten them out for the 1998 Winter Games by
allegedly paying $100,000 per vote to members of the International Olympic
Committee. Determined not to come up short again, key Olympic officials
from the Beehive State apparently decided to employ underhanded tactics of
their own in a no-holds-barred effort to bring the Winter Games to Salt
Lake in 2002.
Two top Salt Lake Olympic organizers face trial this summer on federal
bribery and conspiracy charges. The litany of transgressions are by now
well established. IOC delegates were plied with cash, gifts, lavish trips,
and scholarships for their children. Supplying young, nubile escorts for
visiting dignitaries wasn't particularly unique, but adding a year's
supply of Viagra was an original flourish on the part of bid officials.
Salt Lake and Nagano representatives chased the games for similar
reasons. They hoped that hosting the Olympics, the great Circus Maximus of
planet Earth, would generate huge exposure and increased tourism. A boon
for local real estate interests, the Olympics are the ultimate global
media extravaganza, a nonstop infomercial for the host city that gets to
strut its stuff to the rest of the world, while multinational corporations
pay millions to sponsor the games and TV networks pay billions for
But the pseudoreligious aura of the five-ring Olympic logo — which is
supposed to symbolize athletic excellence and international peace through
friendly competition — has obscured the negative environmental fallout
from the games in recent years.
"Nagano was a dirty Olympics," says Peter Berg, director of
the Planet Drum Foundation (www.planetdrum.org). Berg and other green
activists do not want to see a repeat performance in Utah.
The Olympics pose many formidable environmental challenges involving
waste management, energy consumption, transportation, materials recycling,
and major construction projects that damage the natural landscape. But the
Winter Olympics, even more so than the Summer Games, are particularly
prone to wreaking havoc on the ecosystem, according to Berg, "because
they impact a relatively isolated, snow-covered, mountainous area, which
is overwhelmed by a sudden human influx, monumental traffic, increased
energy consumption, and waste production on a scale the place has never
Based in San Francisco, Berg formed Planet Drum in 1973 to provide
"an effective grassroots approach to ecology that emphasizes
sustainability, community self-determination, and regional
self-reliance." In the mid 1990s, he teamed up with Kimiharu To of
the Deep Ecology Resource Center in Japan, and they launched Guard Fox
Watch, a monitoring effort that focused on environmental problems related
to the Winter Olympics in Nagano.
Even before the crowds descended upon Nagano, native plant and animal
communities were disrupted or destroyed by clear-cutting forests and
bulldozing land for new buildings. Red monkeys, hawks, eagles, owls, and
other species were driven out of once pristine habitats that had been
ravaged by 75 miles of newly constructed, soil-eroding roads so large
numbers of athletes and spectators could access sporting venues. In
addition, the watershed was poisoned by hundreds of diesel buses spewing
black soot onto snow banks, while roadways were smothered with an
inordinate amount of salt and other chemicals to remove ice and keep
transportation routes open 24 hours a day during the two-week competition.
The steep mountain slopes guaranteed that all the effluent from ground and
air pollution would gravitate downward, ending up in concentrated form in
the Ishigawa River.
The net result was the worst ecological disaster in Nagano's history.
"It was the biggest thing to hit that valley since the last Ice
Age," Berg says.
And to top it off, local residents were left to foot the bill for
expensive infrastructure projects that did not serve community needs.
These unwanted facilities will cost every family in the Nagano district
approximately $32,000 over a 20-year period.
After the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the IOC adopted an
ambitious set of eco-guidelines that emphasized environmental protection
and sustainable development. Endorsing a "proactive" and
"dynamic approach" to achieve green goals, the IOC introduced
environmental requirements for would-be host cities. But the new marching
orders were optional for organizers whose bid had already been accepted by
the IOC, so they didn't apply at Nagano.
The Salt Lake Olympics, which will start on Feb. 8, 2002, and continue
for 17 days, is mandated to be the first environmentally sound Winter
Games. "We are hoping to improve environmental conditions, not just
keep them the same," asserts Diane Conrad, director of the Salt Lake
Organizing Committee's environmental programs.
Conrad contends that next year's Winter Games, played out against the
peaks of the Wasatch range, will avoid the pitfalls of Nagano by making
use of already existing venues in the Salt Lake area and limiting
construction to three new facilities. Olympic officials say they plan to
restore and expand wetlands at one building site, while recontouring the
landscape at another site to prevent agricultural run-off into the
headlands of the Provo River.
But many people are unhappy about the large, ugly scar on the mountain
at the Winter Sports Park, where ski jumps are being built. Salt Lake
Organizing Committee president Milt Romney admits they made a mistake.
"It happened before I came on board," Romney says. But he
maintains that the blighted hillside will be mitigated by an extensive
"That's less than a Band-Aid," counters Berg, who is not
impressed by the tree-planting scheme. Berg and his Japanese colleague met
with Salt Lake Olympic organizers in February 1999 and urged them to
establish a series of baseline measurements with respect to air and water
quality, energy consumption, road and air traffic density, solid waste
disposal, wildlife populations, and other environmental factors. Without
objective baseline indicators, Berg argues, it won't be possible to prove
whether the stated goal of a net positive environmental impact for the
Winter Games has been achieved.
Berg feels a sense of urgency. "If these baseline monitoring
procedures are not initiated by the beginning of February 2001, there will
not be sufficient data to compare environmental conditions before, during,
and after the 2002 Olympics," he explains. "All talk of a green
Olympics will merely be anecdotal."
Berg maintains that the Winter Games should not only avoid being
environmentally destructive — they should be "sustainability
instructive," as well. Next winter, the eyes of the world will be
riveted on Salt Lake. He wants the Olympics to become "a showcase for
sustainable development." With this in mind, Guard Fox Watch provided
the Salt Lake Organizing Committee with a detailed list of recommendations
that included state-of-the art techniques for energy conservation;
dual-use plumbing systems for recycling "gray water" in
athlete's quarters; compost toilets; subsidizing vendors of locally
produced organic food; and maintaining "wild corridors" through
event venues so that roaming animals and can move freely.
Utah Olympic officials emphasize that Salt Lake City is the largest
metropolitan area ever to host the Winter Games, and they don't expect to
exceed the design limits of the urban systems that are already in place.
They claim that traffic restrictions during the competition will actually
reduce air pollution. They also envision a large-scale recycling program
to accomplish their goal of "zero waste," which means that
everything used during the games would be made from biodegradable or
But the response from members of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee has
been less than satisfactory, as far as Berg is concerned. After several
months of foot-dragging, they informed Guard Fox Watch that they lacked
the necessary funds to collect and analyze the baseline data required to
measure environmental impacts during the games.
"Then how will we know if Olympic officials have fulfilled their
promises?" Berg asks. "Even if the data showed that they had
fallen short of expectations, at least they could say they made an honest
effort. It would have been a precedent-setter, a model for future Olympics
and other outdoor sports spectacles."
By Martin A. Lee
Los Angeles Times
February 3, 2002
Opinion; Part M; Page 1; Editorial Pages Desk
It will cost nearly $2 billion to stage the Salt Lake City
Olympics--almost $800,000 per athlete--with U.S. taxpayers picking up
about a quarter of the tab. Partly due to increased security, the Utah
Games, which start on Feb. 8 and continue for 17 days, will be the most
expensive Winter Olympics ever. "These are not wasted funds,"
says International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge. Such
an investment, he says, leaves a "great legacy" to Olympic
But in Salt Lake City, the Games will leave another legacy as well:
profound ecological consequences. Following the 1994 Winter Games in
Lillehammer, Norway, the IOC adopted an ambitious set of guidelines
emphasizing environmental protection, sustainable development, and a
"proactive" and "dynamic approach" to achieve green
goals. The environment was touted as one of three pillars of the Olympics,
along with sports and culture, and cities bidding for the Games had to
trot out their green credentials.
But such considerations have since been largely abandoned in Salt Lake
City, and in the end, the region will likely be left with significant
environmental damage from the Games. "The only thing green about
these Games," says Alexis Kelner, co-founder of the Utah
environmental group Save Our Canyons, "is the color of the currency
being thrown around."
That money is going everywhere except to environmental protection. In
the beginning, some $6 million was budgeted by the Salt Lake Organizing
Committee (SLOC) to address environmental concerns. In February 1999, that
sum was reduced to $1.5 million, or just one-tenth of 1% of the 2002
With meager resources at her disposal, Diane Conrad Gleason, director
of environmental programs for the SLOC, has focused on educational
projects, including a children's video with television's "Bill Nye,
the Science Guy." Seminars on green themes have encouraged Salt Lake
hotel and restaurant managers to implement water and energy conservation
techniques. Gleason also has promoted an international tree-planting
campaign. And she's continued to mouth the requisite incantations about
hosting "the greenest Games ever."
But educational initiatives and public relations cannot mitigate the
negative impact of major construction projects like the ski jumps at Utah
Winter Sports Park, which have left a large, ugly gash on the
mountainside. Even Mitt Romney, president and CEO of the SLOC, concedes
that was a mistake. "It happened before I came on board," he
said. Nor could it prevent billionaire oilman Earl Holding, at the time a
member of the SLOC, from pulling off what many activists see as the
biggest environmental scandal of the Games.
Using his considerable political connections, Holding arranged a land
swap with the U.S. Forest Service to acquire 1,377 acres at the base of
his Snowbasin ski resort, with carte blanche approval from Congress to
develop the land. Congress also pitched in a $15-million subsidy for an
access road to Holding's resort.
Pristine mountain wilderness soon morphed into condos, restaurants and
ski runs. Parking lots encroached on riverbed areas, degrading trout
habitat and discharging waste runoff into the watershed. As approved by
Congress, these developments were exempt from the usual public review
required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The waiver was
justified, according to Republican Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, to facilitate
the staging of the Winter Olympics. But critics contend that the public
was hoodwinked. "No land swap or other similar venture was necessary
to stage the Games," says Howard Peterson, a member of the U.S.
Olympic Organizing Committee's site-selection team that evaluated
Snowbasin as a venue for ski-race competitions.
Trying to make the best of a bad situation, the Environmental Advisory
Committee (EAC), a volunteer group established by the SLOC, worked with
environmental groups and government officials to choose a road pathway to
Snowbasin that would have the least impact on wetlands, streams, and hawk
and owl habitats. The EAC also lobbied to protect vulnerable canyons in
the Wasatch Mountains.
But the EAC wielded no real authority, and several members, including
Ivan Weber, head of Utah's Sierra Club chapter, quit the group after
concluding that ecological concerns were a low priority for the Olympics
committee. "When environmentalists would bring up an issue,"
Weber explained, "SLOC would say, 'It's too early to do anything,'
and then at some point later would say, 'It would have been nice, but it's
too late now."
The Snowbasin parking lots strike another environmental nerve as well.
When Salt Lake was vying to host the Winter Games, bid officials promised
that attendees at the 2002 Olympics would be able to ride public
transportation to events. But the SLOC later reneged on this pledge and
adopted a transportation plan that relies heavily on private automobiles.
Thirty-five million dollars were allocated to build new parking lots and
expand old ones in order to accommodate a huge influx of traffic. The SLOC
acquired a borrowed fleet of 4,000 gas-guzzling SUVs, which are exempt
from U.S. clean air standards, and vans to ferry athletes and others
between event venues and the Olympic Village, a 60-square-mile area.
Chemical salts that pollute the watershed will be used to clear the snow
and keep the roads open 24 hours a day. And air quality will suffer
because of all the vehicular exhaust, which creates a sickly, yellow haze
during winter temperature inversions in Salt Lake.
But the SLOC's chief environmental officer sees a silver lining in the
smog: emissions credits. Various companies in Utah and other states
pollute less than they are allowed, Gleason says, and some have donated
their unused pollution credits to the Olympics. These donations, she says,
will offset any emissions increases related to the 2002 Games, resulting
in "the first Olympics with net-zero emissions."
Many critics scoff at the notion of trading emissions, as nothing can
change the fact that more emissions will be discharged into the air
because of the Olympics than otherwise would have been. "It's a lot
of smoke and mirrors and bad arithmetic," says a Utah state
Recycling is also cited by Olympic officials as an environmental
triumph for the Games. Strong objections from the GrassRoots Recycling
Network and other national green organizations prompted Olympic organizers
to improve plans to achieve "zero waste" through recycling and
composting. Coca-Cola Co., a leading Olympic sponsor, contributed extra
funds for an advanced, two-bin recycling system that could conceivably
eliminate 90% of the waste generated by the Winter Games.
But critics consider this insufficient. "The Olympics should not
only avoid being environmentally destructive, it should also be a showcase
for sustainable development," says Peter Berg, director of the San
Francisco-based Planet Drum Foundation and co-founder of Guard Fox Watch,
an international project that monitors ecological issues related to the
Olympic Games. Two years ago, Berg and Japanese ecologist Kimiharo To met
with Salt Lake Olympic officials and urged them to feature an array of
green alternatives, including state-of-the-art solar panels, compost
toilets and dual-use plumbing systems for recycling "gray water"
in athlete's quarters. "It would have set a precedent," Berg
noted. "It would have been a model for future Olympics and other
outdoor sports spectacles."
But no money was available to demonstrate these new technologies.
"What a shame," says Ivan Weber of the Sierra Club. "A
crucial opportunity to raise awareness was squandered." Part of the
problem, according to Weber, stems from the itinerant ethos of Olympic
professionals "who travel like a circus crew, staging event after
event with little or no concern for community or local environment."
When the 2002 Games are over, Olympic officials will leave behind a
skeletal staff, while others move on to the next show. And the true cost
of hosting the Salt Lake Olympics won't be clear until much later.
Martin A. Lee (email@example.com) is the
author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book about