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2012 Olympics: Is Environmental Cost Worth it?

By Harvey Shapiro,a physician who was a doping control officer in the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics. He is the author of MORPHED, a novel predicting the introduction of DNA doping.

Most of us recall the “warm fuzzies” of friends and families cheering for our favorites during the Olympics. No event connects the world like the biannual Games. It uniquely unites sports lovers with those with different interests. When the chance came to serve as a doping control officer in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, I grabbed the opportunity. At those Games, I stood at the finishing line in awe of the feats performed by the athletes. No one had a better seat.

I also got insight into the massive undertaking that occurs when a city wins the bid and then has to practically go on steroids to get facilities built, transportation arranged, elaborate security systems established, and hordes of volunteers trained to make sure spectators, athletes, and members of the Olympic Family have a great experience. Despite the tarnish of the Salt Lake Game’s bidding scandal, those of us working the 2002 Winter Games took pride in participating in such a global event.

Since those Olympics I began to see this event within the context of a huge sport-industrial-entertainment complex. The International Olympic Committee rules with almost absolute power. Its round table of lords and knights exhibit appetites and egos that consume vast quantities of monetary, social and consumable resources. The IOC has fed growth hormone to their enterprise as our over-heating Earth pleads for some restraint. It runs its operation like those who persist in denying global warming so they can guiltlessly drive their gas-guzzling grizzlies. In a similar fashion, the IOC ignores its carbon footprint and hurtles ahead constructing new sport palaces.

This building binge begins with a bidding war to become an Olympic venue that quickly morphs into a brick and mortar arms race. Not withstanding an occasional Games’ cash surplus, governments are often stuck with lasting deficits and facilities that are difficult to handle. 

While a few countries succeed in building facilities, which secure long-term benefits for their people, others suffer the long-term ravages winning the bid and losing the race. In chasing national glory, some countries are left with a legacy of displaced citizens, and derelict or fading sports facilities.

Athens’ Faliron Olympic site is locked and deserted and Greece’s failing economy is further shackled by Olympic debt.  Beijing’s “Bird Nest” stadium, designed for over 90,000 spectators, may become a “white elephant” accordingThe China Daily,and its plush aquatic center has been converted into a money losing water-theme park, while dazed Chinese wander the streets of their new neighborhoods, hoping to reweave their former social fabric.

Utah’s Olympic Park and ice skating rink are well-used sites, but the support money left behind from the Olympics has withered. Because of the region’s strong winter sports tradition they continue to survive as training, competition, and exhibition venues. Perhaps, if new sports facilities were built with a country’s most popular sports in mind, their continued use by its citizens would be a more certain benefit, but the IOC currently considers only venues which can build-it-all in a contiguous area, thus assuring some buildings will not be used much after the Games end.

Countless additional carbon emissions occur with air travel to an Olympic city. More is added by monster traffic jams, such as those in London, even before the Games began.  Then there is all of the money spent on the Opening Ceremony, which has become a competition in itself. I hesitate to write about this sacrosanct show of national pride, where the competition shifts from sports to bragging rights. Surely, some of that cash could be diverted to supporting athletic programs in poorer countries, and an entertaining, more athlete-centered ceremony still goes forward to open the Games.

As a first simple step the IOC could relieve some of the financial and carbon burdens by concurrently reusing prior venues and their facilities. Every two years a new host venue would be added as an older one was dropped. This would result in a reduced building program and permit prior venues to get more use out of their buildings before they move off the list.

With this model the huge carbon load of massive construction projects would be lowered and more cities could participate due to lower facility construction costs. A side benefit would be decreased travel costs and traffic congestion, making it cheaper and easier to become a physical spectator. Security risks would be more controlled as dispersed events make it more difficult for terrorists.

Huge video-screens, already existing in most stadiums, would simultaneously tie the multi-venue events together for ticket holders, and the rest of us will continue to gather in our homes to watch one of the greatest shows on Earth. If the IOC could move the Olympics from a four-year game cycle to a two-year plan, they could get started on something like this.

In their excesses the IOC misses a critical mentoring moment with worldwide implications. It would be a step forward if the IOC not only cleaned the Games of performance enhancing drugs, but also took a leadership role in greening up their event.  That would be a small first step for them and a giant pole-vault for the Earth.


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