While the core values of the Olympic Games will always be sportsmanship and athleticism, long ago the International Olympic Committee recognized the potential for the Games to have a profoundly positive impact on host cities, and to foster positive change world-wide.
Even being shortlisted to host a bid can have a positive change in a country, forcing it to re-examine its own global image, instilling pride, and encouraging it to imagine ways to make things better.
The bid group that was attempting to secure the 2008 Games for Instanbul, Turkey, asked only to be shortlisted, because they could use that as an opportunity to rebuild their own crumbling sports infrastructure, and because they could benefit economically in tourism and trade just by being in the global spotlight for a little while.
In 1994 the IOC expanded their mandate to include the environment, and since then every bid has had to have an environmental component.
Standards have been set, met and exceeded progressively, but according to Ken Baker, the head of the sustainability committee of the Vancouver Whistler 2010 Olympic Bid Corporation, there will be an opportunity to go even further if the bid is successful. In fact, sustainability is the core theme of the Vancouver Whistler Olympic effort, and "its already being incorporated into the DNA of the bid, at every level, in every committee, its there," says Baker.
Whether youre part of the committee thats planning athlete housing, or the construction of new sports facilities, every component of the bid will have to take economic, environmental and social sustainability into consideration. That means coming up with innovative ways to reduce and eliminate negative impacts that the Games will have on sites being used, on the people who live there, and on future generations Montreal-ers are still paying for the "Big O" stadium for the 1976 Olympics, for example, and some people are already calling for its demolition.
While other countries bidding for the 2010 Games will also have environmental components, Baker believes that the sustainability message could be a competitive advantage for Vancouver and Whistler.
"Theres a good chance that other groups will focus on sustainability, but I just think we can do it better," says Baker, who recently returned from the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Nagano, Japan.
"One of the things I took away from Nagano was that although the organizing group understands whats possible on the environmental front, theres always a struggle to make sustainability real.
"I think the so-called green technologies weve already developed, such as our wastewater treatment systems, our forestry technology, our Ballard Fuel Cell systems are some of the most advanced in the world," says Baker. "A sustainable Olympics is possible."
Past and future Olympics have embraced sustainable ideas, but all fall short of the standard that Vancouver and Whistler hope to set.
The 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, was the first Olympics to have an environmental component, "but it was added almost as an afterthought," says Baker, in the wake of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
"They definitely raised the level of understanding and awareness, and made advancements in the construction of facilities, energy efficiency, purchasing, transportation, and waste management."
The 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, Georgia, also included sustainable initiatives, such as recycling, composting, and the use of clean fuel buses, and there was a central solar energy exhibit.
"They did not profess to be green, and green innovation wasnt a prominent feature of the bid," says Baker.
In 1998, Naganos Olympics included things like low-emission vehicles, recyclable uniforms, biodegradable dishes, and tree planting and habitat restoration around the mountains.
It wasnt until the Sydney Olympics in 2000 that "the Olympics made a real leap forward to sustainability," says Baker. "The reason is because they started at the beginning of the bid, driven by organizations like Greenpeace, which acted as a kind of watchdog throughout the bid."
All of the previous bids were already underway by the time that the IOC began recognizing environmental initiatives as part of the bid process.
It wasnt until 1999 that the IOC added Article 21 to its bidding process, which basically makes environmental initiatives a mandatory component of a technical bid.
Among the many green initiatives of the Sydney Games are facility design and construction, a revolutionary athletes village, an emphasis on public transportation and renewable energy, water management and some site remediation to clean up toxic soil.
The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City dont go as far as Sydney, but do include a number of innovations. One of the major initiatives was to plant 20 million trees around the world, including two million in Utah. Another was to produce zero waste and greenhouse gases.
One of the biggest sustainable contributions, however, may be economic. While Nagano spent over $300 million to build a facility for hockey and speed skating, Salt Lake City organizers used architectural innovations to build a facility that includes two Olympic-sized rinks and a sports centre with a swimming pool for just $27 million.
The Athens Games in 2004 are having problems just getting the facilities built on time, and the perception is that the environment will have to take a back seat to the infrastructure that is required. There is an emphasis on "greening" the city, however, by planting trees and vegetation.
The Winter Games in Torino in 2006 have a sustainability platform, but at this time very little is known about what they hope to achieve.
Beijings bid to host the 2008 Summer Games included dramatic environmental initiatives, such as greening one of the worlds largest cities, and moving industrial polluters out of the city.
"They have air quality issues, water quality issues, transportation issues, social issues everything you can imagine to deal with, and Ive never seen such an aggressive policy for turning those things around. Theyre moving an entire pulp mill outside city limits. Its just staggering," says Baker.
Which brings us to 2010. "We believe we can set a new standard for the Games in terms of sustainability. That can be our gift to the Olympics and to the world. We can showcase and export our technology, and leave a sustainability legacy at home I think we can be proud of."
Although the sustainability framework for the Vancouver Whistler bid is far from complete, Baker says the first drafts are already in use by the more than 30 different organizing committees who are working on the bid. Experts, bid partners, and stakeholders are also being asked to contribute suggestions on how to make sustainability work.
For example, some of the ideas put forward for Vancouver include a model sustainable community on the southeast side of False Creek, upgrades to the convention centre, the revitalization of existing facilities, sustainable design and construction of new facilities, and public transportation initiatives.
The sustainability committee is still looking at ways to incorporate sustainability in Whistler, however Whistlers own sustainability initiatives will help to determine the best way to go about staging the Games.
The committee is still working on the documentation, and the Vancouver Whistler 2010 Bid Corporation will be hosting public open house meetings in the New Year to consult the public.
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