Nobody Wins If Nature Loses: Environmental risks posed by 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah
San Francisco Bay Guardian
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.”