In order to make such a gigantic event as sustainable as possible, there's only one answer: Don't keep moving it.
It’s possible to dream up thousands of small ways to make a gigantic event like the Olympics more sustainable. A London-based group, for instance, asked architects to design a solar-powered information booth that would highlight recycled materials. The winner, announced this week, took its design from the Olympics’ iconic ring logo and used recycled steel. The second-place design involved floating balloons that would suck carbon dioxide from the air. Another runner-up would have crafted a running track, bent into a building of sorts, from the recycled soles of Nike shoes.
The London Olympic committee isn’t at a loss for ideas on how to green the games, either. The organizers tried, unsuccessfully, to make the Olympic torch’s fuel carbon neutral. They sourced timber for the gigantic velodrome from legal, sustainable sources. Water from the swimming pools will be re-used to flush toilets. On a larger scale, the London Olympics promised to use existing venues when possible and reduce the carbon emissions of new permanent facilities by 15 percent. There's also an independent oversight body to check up on the committee's sustainability efforts.
These initiatives are all positive steps for an event that requires building a series of gigantic sports complexes every two years. But here’s what’s not green: building a series of gigantic sports complexes every two years.
The International Olympics Committee began striving for higher standards of environmental stewardship in 1995, after Norway’s prime minister made a pledge to protect the environment as part of the country’s successful bid for the 1994 Olympics. For the past decade, at least, green one-upmanship has been a staple of the build to the events: every city that hosts the Olympics now wants to host the greenest Olympics ever.
London might be doing a better job at keeping its environmental promises than Sochi, Russia, the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics. But there’s no getting around it: each cycle, the Olympics spew carbon and eat up land and other natural resources.
Instead of watching cities strive to meet the expectations of both sports fans and environmentalists, the International Olympics Committee should choose a permanent home for the Olympic Games. Maybe the Games should come back to Athens! Greece might not need the debt it would take to build a permanent complex, but it could certainly use an economic jolt. Or why not locate the facilities in a stable, developing country, which could build the regular economic boosts into its long-term financial plans?
No matter where the games ended up in the end, creating a permanent facility would automatically make every subsequent Olympics “the greenest ever.” And rather than pitching in on new complex every couple of years, the Olympic Committee could invest in making the permanent home of the Games an ever-improving showcase for green technology. All those fun, little green ideas would still have a place.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Shawn Carpenter, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0