Athletes, Activists, and Sustainability Issues in Sochi

When it comes to the Olympics, everyone is a sports fan. However, not everyone is a fan of this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Ari Phillips reveals the not-so-shiny underside of these games in his post entitled “Dirty Games: How Sochi Abandoned Promises, Jailed Activists And Devastated the Environment”, published on the ClimateProgress blog last week. He points out the unique role (or is it responsibility?) of the Olympics to educate the public about environmental concerns. Tell us what you think! 

Read the full version, published February 12, 2014, here.

When it won the bid to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi back in 2007, Russia guaranteed more than a nice snowpack. Russian authorities, including Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the organizing committee for Russia’s Winter Olympics, along with President Vladimir Putin, proclaimed the 2014 Winter Games would be “green” and “zero waste,” and that they would invest heavily in renewable energy sources such as geothermal heat, wind, sun and biomass. Instead, environmental concerns were stifled by an opaque construction process with little oversight, an effort to silence whistleblowers, and pervasive corruption that led to an attitude of spare-no-expense, even when it came to ecological costs.

“Normally when you talk about the Olympics there’s a lot of good stuff to say,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on sustainable sports issues. “The International Olympic Committee is sensible about climate change and ecologically progressive. The problem with Sochi is that there’s been zero transparency regarding the development process and it’s been impossible to monitor the ecological impacts.”

Hershkowitz said he is especially frustrated with Sochi because of the missed opportunity to engage the public and advance environmentally responsible measures, because while 13 percent of people pay attention to science, more than two-thirds of people pay attention to the Olympics. Not only that, but nearly every industry has a stake in the games — plastics, automotive, food, textiles, and energy corporations are all vendors or sponsors. In the broader trend towards a more environmentally conscious sports world, Hershkowitz sees Sochi as the outlier.

“The recent history of the Olympics is about using the vision of the event to stimulate a dialogue about the environmental process,” Hershkowitz said. “What we have here is a situation where people are afraid to talk. Where has the waste from construction gone? What have the habitat impacts been?”

In Sochi, it’s clear that Putin is the number one stakeholder — and he has staked a large part of his reputation on the outcome of this global event. In their quest to keep plans on track and scandal-free, Russian authorities have gone as far as to detain and expel environmental activists and minimize concerns raised by whistleblowers.

“The environmental situation has significantly improved here,” Putin recently told journalists while visiting the new Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center near Sochi. “In connection with the Olympics we agreed to restore the Persian leopard population. Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of destroyed nature.”

sochi medal

According to eyewitness accounts and reports from concerned organizations, far more nature has been destroyed than restored.

“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and member of the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, told TIME. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia. There is also the added danger of increased landslides, mudflows and building collapses as a result of poor construction and hazardous waste dumping practices.”

At the same time, environmental regulations have actually been relaxed to accommodate the Games. Legislation protecting national forests was revoked to allow for construction to occur in Sochi National Park, with the Olympic village affecting over 8,000 acres of the park. This mountainous area of the Western Caucasus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that had not experienced significant human impact.

In an odd but telling partnership, Dow Chemical Company may be the saving grace when it comes to this Olympics’ environmental record. Putin also vowed that the Olympics would be the first carbon neutral Games, and by becoming the Official Carbon Partner of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Dow is committed to making this happen. Dow will offset both the direct carbon footprint as well as the travel-related emissions — which could total over 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — by investing in low-carbon technologies in infrastructure, industry and agriculture over the next decade.

“Carbon neutrality” is a loaded term and Dow’s somewhat vague plans will take over a decade, but it is a nonetheless a clean spot in an otherwise mucky scene. According to the Guardian, Dow is the only big sponsor of this year’s Olympics doing much to promote sustainability.

“I think there’s an inevitable trend in society towards a more progressive approach towards these events,” explained Sandy Simpson, a lecturer at UC Davis who teaches courses on the Olympics. “In the bid for the 2018 games there was tremendous opposition from citizens in Germany because of the potential environmental impact on the surrounding area. At the same time, South Korea was promising they will have all these great renewable energy facilities. 30 or 40 years ago, that wouldn’t have even been an issue.”

South Korea, a country that has vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020, will be hosting the next Winter Olympics in the northern city of PyeongChang. It nearly won the 2014 Games, losing out to Sochi by four votes.

PyeongChang’s bid included the aspiration to create a sustainable winter sports legacy through recycling rain and waste water, using natural lighting, investing in renewable energy and, surprise, being a carbon-free event. Whether South Korea will follow in Russia’s footsteps and allow environmental concerns to take a back seat to preserving the image of an unparalleled event remains to be seen.

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