Sochi 2014: Why The Sustainability Record Matters

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been overall enthralled by the athletes’ abilities and the venues’ beauty at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  Regretfully, the splendor has made me forget about the toll of the games on the surrounding environment.  In my mind, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) most likely has lofty goals concerning international cooperation, human rights, and, of course, sustainability.  I imagined that the organization worked hard to promote these values.  Unfortunately, I was dismayed to learn that this last pillar – sustainability – has been all but ignored during the Russian games.

When Russia originally made a bid for the Olympics seven years ago, President Vladmir Putin promised a list of environmentally friendly measures: zero waste, heavy investment in alternative energy, restoration of endangered species to the surrounding areas, and the first carbon neutral Games in history (1).  However, none of these targets have been realized and some have even worsened.  For instance, the environmental group, Environmental Watch of the North Caucus (EWNC), has charged that construction in Sochi has severely damaged the surrounding lands (2).  EWNC has also accused Russia of illegal dumping, blocking brown bear migration routes, and limiting access to drinking water for native residents (1).

What was Russia’s response to these accusations?

Instead of addressing the problems, the government chose to suppress the faultfinders.  Environmental activists, such as Yevgeny Vitishko (a member of EWNC), were arrested for criticizing the ecological impact of the Winter Olympics.  Vitishko was taken into custody right before giving an environmental report on Sochi and was sentenced to three years in prison (2).  Another EWNC member, Suren Gazaryan, is now living in exile in Estonia after releasing a statement on ecosystem loss and hazardous conditions present in Sochi due to poor and rushed construction (1).  His statements have been supported by other academics.  Natalia Prudnikova of Altai State University backed Gazaryan, noting that there was a “serious threat of destruction of the most valuable and natural complexes” of the Caucasian reserve (3).  She explained that any clearing of trees for downhill ski or snowboarding would damage the unique biodiversity and habitats of the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (4).

Of course, I understand that the Olympics hold mostly entertainment and monetary value.  So why should the IOC even care about how the Games are conducted?  Why does the construction (and destruction) matter?  Why should Russia put the environment first?

My answers are honor and precedent.

For Russians, Sochi is a source of pride.  Being chosen as an Olympic venue, a stage for the entire world to watch, instantly grants the nation renown.  Already mired in controversy over human rights issues, Russia should attempt to uphold its reputation by ascertaining that its Olympics has a clean record all around.  Unfortunately, it seems that the government has already lost favor with some members of the IOC.  Former IOC member, Els van Breda Vriesman, has been outspoken over the fact that she (and other committee members) would not cast their votes for Sochi today, predominantly due to the environmental devastation that has occurred there (5).

It is also important for each Olympics Games to be an exemplar model for what will come four years down the road.  If construction at Sochi had not disturbed surrounding ecosystems and the planning committee had implemented greener policies, future Olympics may be planned in the same way.  Admittedly, Russia’s initial promises were impressive and have already inspired future countries to include similar goals in their bids for upcoming Olympic Games.  Already, South Korea has promised to invest in technologies such as rain and wastewater recycling and renewable energy sources for a carbon neutral 2018 Winter Olympics (1).  Hopefully, they will follow through.

Finally, IOC turning a blind eye to Russia’s lack of responsibility is shameful.  IOC has avoided directly addressing sustainably problems because it asserted “environmental complaints put forward by NGOs needed to be considered against [Russia’s] local context” (5).  However, it is in the Olympic Charter to uphold sustainability values.  In 1994, IOC adopted the environment as its “third dimension of Olympianism” (6).  It is unfortunate that only a decade later, the same organization has allowed the haste of production and presentation to overcome accountability and quality.  While the Olympic Games are about the sports, they are also about the principles we value.  We applaud the hard work and dedication of athletes, so the Olympic organizers should practice the same in adhering to their own tenants.  Like the competitors, every Olympics is another chance for IOC to ostentatiously show off what means the most to them.  As Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council cites, only one-tenth of the populations pays attention to science.  Two-thirds watch the Olympics (1).  As far as Sochi 2014 goes, a green message was not delivered.