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Ecology and Olympic Games, a bad example?

A competition with a non-negligible ecological impact.

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Our environmental impact, our ecological footprint and our polluting behaviors have been at the heart of scientific debate for decades. Our contemporary societies are starting to care more about it, nevertheless, the subject remains secondary in the media landscape.

The world of sport is increasingly assuming its share of responsibility and advocating new, more ethical and responsible values. It expresses its desire to work to limit its environmental consequences as much as possible and to support changes in behavior. But the reality does not seem so promising.

This year, the Winter Olympics will take place in Beijing from February 4 to 20, 2022. Every 4 years, the event is followed by hundreds of millions of viewers with 109 events that are contested and 15 disciplines highlighted. The organizers of the Beijing Olympics announce “to organize games that are environmentally friendly, unifying, open and clean.

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The promises of the organizers

  • The installation of wind farms and solar panels near the competition sites,
  • Protection of local ecosystems and control of water consumption,
  • Using electricity and hydrogen to power more than three-quarters of the vehicles used during the event,
  • The development of long-term benefits for the local communities and economy,
  • Reducing and offsetting carbon emissions,
  • Improving air quality.

Although the organizers published a 130-page sustainability report on their commitments, two important elements seem to show that not all promises seem to be kept.

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First of all, because the Olympic Games are being held in a region known for its winter drought, nearly 10 kilometers of the slopes were covered with artificial snow. The creation of this snow results in a significant consumption of electricity, with the use of 100 snow generators and 300 cannons, but also a large consumption of water (185 million liters of water were taken from the neighboring watersheds), which corresponds to the average annual consumption of a city of 12,000 inhabitants in China.

This event may threaten local water reserves, as the region is already suffering from a constant shortage of this resource. Indeed, Beijing can only count on 300 m3 of water per year and per inhabitant. In addition, the problem of artificial snow, which can alter the quality of competitions, because this fake snow is of poorer quality than natural rainwater and can impact the performance of athletes.

Secondly, a ski area was built for the occasion in the Songshan Nature Reserve in Yanqing after more than 20,000 trees were cut down, threatening certain species.

However, the ecological costs related to air transport will be reduced thanks to or because of the pandemic compared to the previous Olympics, as only Chinese residents will be able to attend.

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The reactions

The environmental degradations highlighted are not specific to the Beijing Olympics. Greenpeace declared in 2015, about the 2008 Games, that “moving polluting industries outside the city is not enough to guarantee a sustainable improvement in air quality”.

The environmental problem may call into question the legitimacy of the Winter Olympics in the long term.

Perrine Laffont, Olympic mogul skiing champion, declared that “the Games have ecological and sustainability values. We must use the Games, which are an international event, to set an example.”

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The criticisms of the NGOs are heard, but the politicians and the athletes also show themselves more and more unfavorable to the organization of the Olympic Games.

Some speak of Greenwashing while others call for a boycott, because the Olympics do not respect the ecological and responsible values guiding more and more our contemporary societies.

Other groups deplore “the total absence of democracy in the urban transformation process”.  Arnaud Gauffier of WWF France declared that “the choices of the sites are very political, therefore the environmental considerations, to know if there is snow or not, arrive last.”

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It is also certain that the organization of this kind of event is threatened by global warming. According to a study published in January 2022 in the journal Current Issues in Tourism, by the end of the century, if no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is achieved, the Olympics could be held in only one place, Sapporo, Japan.

What future for the Olympics?

While the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing are the talk of the town, those of 2024, which will take place in Paris, promise a certain environmental commitment. The organizers wish to initiate “a new era in the organization of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

The latter have signed the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action initiative and the Ministry of Sports’ Charter of 15 responsible commitments. They want to mark a break with the history of the Games by taking into account the climate and environmental issues related to the design of this type of event.

The organizers aspire to become the first major sporting event with a positive contribution to the climate, i.e. to reduce the emissions linked to the organization of the Games and to offset more CO2 emissions than those emitted.

To achieve this, they have committed to building only two venues and to using pre-existing buildings, thus reducing the carbon impact and allowing the highlighting of French architecture. In addition, they are committed to implementing a voluntary compensation plan if all carbon emissions are not avoided by creating CO2 capture systems or supporting the preservation of forests and oceans.

Ambitious and promising promises for a positive ecological impact.

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