A voice for bioregional sustainability, education and culture

Home | Recent Posts | Library | Xchange Store | Winter Olympics | Contact Us | Volunteer | Site Map | Donate!

Bioregional Olympics:

Articles by Martin A. Lee*

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 Guardian (www.sfbg.com)

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 broadcast rights.

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 seen before."

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 tree-planting campaign.

"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 recyclable material.

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."

[Back to Top]


OLYMPICS; Greenest Games Ever? Not!

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 cities.

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 Olympic budget.

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 environmental official.

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.

[Back to Top]


Martin A. Lee (martin@sfbg.com) is the author of Acid Dreams and The Beast Reawakens, a book about neofascism.