Sustainability: the Olympic-sized debate

By in Sports & Health

The Ubyssey (University Of British Columbia)

VANCOUVER (CUP) ”“ In 2003, when Vancouver was selected to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, VANOC made a promise: Vancouver would be the first sustainable Olympics in history.
On Feb. 12 the time will have arrived for 5,000 athletes, 10,000 media members, 14,000 volunteers and 2.3 million attendees to take part in the Games and the questions remain: will Vancouver live up to its claim? Is there such a thing as a sustainable Olympics?

It is already known that 328,000 tonnes of carbon — the equivalent of approximately 65,600 extra cars driving for a year — is expected to be emitted into the atmosphere during the Games. Air travel alone will contribute 226,000 tonnes of total emissions, according to a report published by the David Suzuki Foundation.

This environmental pollution is just the tip of the disappearing iceberg and most people think about such things as the environment when they think about sustainability. However, in the wake of a mega-sporting event such as the Olympics, this concept becomes more complex, according to Robert Sparks, director of University of British Columbia’s school of human kinetics.

“Sustainability is not just economics and the environment,” Sparks said. “When we think about sustainability, we should also be thinking about development, health and physical activity.”

To lessen the environmental and social impact of the Games and help Vancouver live up to its sustainability promise, VANOC solicited the help and advice of UBC.

Academia takes the reins

Since Vancouver’s winning bid in 2003, UBC has been involved with a number of projects that assess the ecological impact and increase the overall sustainability of the Olympics.

One of these projects is the first comprehensive Olympic Games Impact report, a series of two reports seeking to determine the social, environmental and economic impact of the Games.

These reports will track the number of people made homeless by the Games, environmental factors such as air quality and the number of tourists, and the businesses and jobs created or changed because of the Olympics, said Dr. Rob Van Wynsberghe, associate professor of human kinetics at the school.

The UBC Centre for Sports and Sustainability will address sustainability issues by creating long-term jobs and opportunities for students and individuals in the community, added Sparks.

UBC’s Coaching and Sustainability Initiative will pair university student mentors with high school students in the local community, he said. More than 1,000 students will take part over the two-week “Olympic break” Vancouver students will be getting from school.

Are UBC’s sustainable efforts enough?

While many professors and employees at the UBC’s sustainability office can’t say enough great things about the initiatives and research being developed at the university thanks to the Olympics, not everyone on campus is as enthusiastic.

Sarah Stevenson, a fifth-year biochemistry student and board member of the Student Legal Fund Society, believes UBC-led projects will have little to no effect on the overall sustainability of the Games. She is especially concerned that the research of the OGI reports would largely be ignored by VANOC and the city of Vancouver.

The impact of UBC’s initiatives will be a minor contribution at best to the overall sustainability of the Games, she said, and to believe that UBC’s Olympic Games Impact reports would be treated seriously is naive.

Stevenson continued to argue that while many Olympic venues, including UBC’s own Doug Mitchell Sports Centre, have LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, a certification that takes into consideration the carbon footprint of the venue and how it was built, this might be only part of an Olympic “green washing” campaign. Green washing is when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually being green.

Stevenson also claimed that while the Whistler Sliding Centre is supposedly LEED certified and therefore sustainable, it uses the same amount of energy it takes to run all of the facilities at Whistler and Blackcomb combined. The sliding centre will be used for bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions at the Games.

“Sustainability at the Olympics is an oxymoron.”
Chris Shaw
Olympics critic

“These types of sustainable claims are absurd and a total falsification of the global consumption that occurs every year an Olympic Games is held,” said Stevenson.

Chris Shaw, professor of neuroscience at UBC and well-known critic of the Olympics, agreed.

“Sustainability at the Olympics is an oxymoron,” he said. “The focus is all directed at the party. When the party is over, when the bills are due, all these initiatives will vanish,” he warned.

Sustainable aftermath

While not all students and staff at UBC agreed about whether or not the Olympics are sustainable, everyone did manage to agree on one point — that is, the need for sustainable initiatives after the Games are over.

“The Olympics alone cannot bear the burden of achieving sustainability,” said newly-appointed UBC director of sustainability, John Robinson.

“I think the best way to think of this is not so much whether what we do at and for the Olympics will ensure the continuance and reinforcement of sustainability, but instead how what we do at and for the Olympics will fit into a larger strategy of promoting and fostering sustainability at UBC and beyond,” he said.

Regardless of how much or little UBC contributes, or whether the Olympic targets are met, society must continue to foster and promote sustainable initiatives, added Shaw.

“Sustainability is something we should do all the time, under all circumstances — not just for special events.”