What is the most talked-about topic these days? The Olympic games of course. Months before the Game began, newspapers were rife with pieces on what the host city – Beijing, China – is doing to ensure that the Game is environmentally sustainable. Now that the Game is over, let’s take stock of the toll it took on the city.
The Olympic games is an international multi-sport event. It is subdivided into summer and winter sporting events, which are held every four years. It is organised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which was founded in 1894. The city where Olympic games are played is called the ‘host city’. Selecting the host city for a particular Olympiad (period of four years) is a tough job. IOC receives innumerous applications for this “position”. So, how does it choose the host?
When a city applies or bids to host an Olympic games event, the IOC makes an assessment to see the city’s ability to stage such high-level, international, multi-sports events against a set of 11 technical criteria: government support, legal issues and public opinion; general infrastructure; sports venues; Olympic Village(s); environmental conditions and impact; accommodation; transport concept; safety and security; experience from past sports events; finance, and; overall project and legacy. One of its key roles is – “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly”.
The Agenda 21 of The Olympic Movement says:
Sports facilities: The usage of existing facilities should be considered. New ones should use ecofriendly techniques. The future use of the venue has to be guaranteed.
Sports equipment: Use of environmentally sound equipment, renewable natural and local products should be promoted.
Energy: Use of renewable energy sources and technologies, such as solar power, to reduce energy consumption is necessary.
Transport: More adequate public transport, cycling and walking should be encouraged.
Accommodation: Hygienic conditions, minimisation of waste and waste recycling are a must.
Waste: Use of toxic products and waste should be reduced. Recycling should be maximised .
Pollution: Pollution caused by the use of toxic products, contamination of soil by hazardous waste from industries, buildings, and emission from vehicles and pesticides should be controlled.
Biodiversity: To protect the biodiversity, deforestation and disturbing of flora and fauna should be avoided. But big games mean big changes… big enough to alter the face of the entire city.
Big game, big change
The scale of the Olympic games is gigantic. The activities needed for its preparation act as a catalyst for the city’s development. It has significant economic, urban, social and historic impacts on the host city, the country and its people – from infrastructure construction, such as competition venues and transport systems, to the transformation of the city’s image. Let’s look at the Beijing Olympics, which is the most expensive Olympic games event, till date.
The city had launched a US$ 34 billion investment programme to build the Olympic Village, improve its transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and recreate cleaner environment. This infrastructure boom and the increase in business for sectors, such as real estate and advertising, are expected to add to the economic growth of China. Increased foreign investment will further boost the economy. But, what kind of changes did the city undergo in this massive overhauling of the city?
To ensure better air quality for the athletes, Beijing closed down factories surrounding the city and took about two million cars off the roads. And it incorporated several “green measures” like use of solarpower in the Olympic Village. But, these temporary solutions cannot solve the larger problems caused by the Games in Beijing. Or in any other city hosting the Games. The fact is: environment is always adversely affected. How?
The Olympic event influences each and every sphere of life, from the natural environment to the life of the city dwellers. While some consider the urban redevelopment prompted by the Games as a sign of better future, the lives of others are severely affected. Here are some of the major impacts of Olympic games:
Hosting the Olympic Games means a city will need competition venues for various events. Most of these are specially constructed for the events. For example, out of the 37 competition venues of the Beijing Olympics, 22 were brand new. In addition, there has to be other facilities like accommodation for the players. Where can these be constructed? The guidelines are specific – a piece of land that is “unused” and “unnecessary”.
But we all know how vital these seemingly “unnecessary” lands are in a metro, especially the capital of a country like China. The new or improved transport systems also foster the “landcrunch”. Construction of roads and other transport modes use up the available land not only around the venue, but, in the entire city. Moreover, the raw materials used are often environmentally harmful and energy-intensive. Even the city people face the brunt of the Games.
Destruction of the natural environment is quite an obvious upshot of such rapid development. Destruction of the Schinias wetland and costal forest during the Athens Olympics in 2004 is an example how the hosting of the Olympic Games can harm valuable natural heritage.
The Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Centre was constructed on this site, and it was never rehabilitated again. Environmental restoration of areas like this is never fulfilled. And neither is the protection of the wildlife in the areas.
During such major events, a large section of the city people are displaced from their homes. Why? There are various reasons. To make space for visitors, to rebuild old houses structures into more luxurious ones, and so on. So, either the land is taken from the original owners or the locality becomes unaffordable to stay in, and the “new” houses too expensive.
According to Centre of Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international human rights organisation with a focus on housing, nearly 20 per cent of global evictions were caused by mega-events like the Olympics. And housing rights have been violated in many of the past Games’ host cities. Apart from evictions, the urban redevelopment has other effects as well. For instance, the rents of renewed houses rise, which displaces tenants who cannot afford them. As per records, during the preparation of Atlanta Olympic Games 1996 there were three key impacts to housing:
9,000 homeless people were arrested during 1995 and 1996;
30,000 poor families were displaced from their homes; and
2,000 public houses were demolished.
Even the new housing units with higher rent were affordable for just one-third of the original residents. (COHRE Atlanta/1996/ 2008). And this is not all…
Pollution and consumption
When a city hosts a Game, the flow of tourists shoots up. They continue to pour in before and after the event. This increases the stress on the city’s resources like water. The consumption of fuel and energy also accelerates. The entire event generates a lot of pollution. Travelling between venues is just one part of this. In a nutshell, although the Olympic Games boost the economy and the image of the Host City, they trigger off changes that may have dire consequences. So, with the Commonwealth Games just a year and some months away, should India rethink its strategies? After all, what is true of the Olympic Games, is true of all the big games.