Sustainability and the Winter Olympics: Lessons Learned

Sustainability and the Winter Olympics: Lessons Learned

Contrary to some suggestions that the Winter Olympics were held too far from the mountains, Torino may in fact have shown the way towards even more environmentally friendly Winter Olympics, the head of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) has said.

"By locating in the city centre several key events, such as figure skating or ice hockey, along with accommodation for athletes and the media, the organizers have dramatically increased the likelihood that these buildings and structures will be sustainably used in the future for sports, other leisure activities and housing," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director.

"During the two weeks of competition this is likely to have increased commuting and transportation between the urban areas and the events staged in more rural, mountainous locations. But over the longer term the environmental impacts are likely to be positive," he said.

"Indeed locating more and more Olympic events away from sensitive rural areas and into city centers with good access to public transport -- especially if this contributes to urban renewal and renovation of redundant buildings and structures -- may be an environmentally sound step forward for future games," added Toepfer.

UNEP has been collaborating with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for over a decade and worked closely with the Torino Organizing Committee (TOROC) before and during the Games. It believes the 2006 Winter Olympics underlined the growing importance of the environment for those staging sporting and public entertainment events.

Eric Falt, director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information which runs the organization's 'sport and the environment' program, said: “We have been most impressed with the environmental measures and commitments made by the TOROC from their climate change initiatives and dedication, to the use of local stone and wood up to their adoption of 'green’ environment management systems such as EMAS and ISO 14001.”

He said UNEP, which signed a cooperation agreement in Torino during the Games with the International Association of Athletics Federations, would want in future to work more closely with individual federations and bodies to ensure that the environment is factored into sporting events from the outset.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that incorporating sustainable development measures at the earliest possible stage of the planning process makes it easier to meet higher and more meaningful environmental goals,” added Falt.

The final score card for Torino’s environmental legacy is likely to emerge over the coming months. But UNEP believes some lessons may have already been learned.

“One area that the IOC might wish review is the issue of recycling of sporting infrastructure. Take bobsleigh, for example. TOROC did a great job to try and mitigate its environmental impact. But the fact remains that constructing, operating and maintaining what is effectively a huge fridge in the mountains raises many fundamental questions of sustainability,” said Toepfer.

The organizing committee has estimated that the track and equipment, also used to stage luge and skeleton events, cost around 70 million Euros to build.

It has cut a 1,435 meter “ravine” complete with 19 bends through the mountainside. The freezing system uses 48 metric tons of ammonia, a substance that is friendly to the ozone layer but raises concerns about the impacts of any possible leaks.

TOROC is considering using the bobsleigh track at Cesana Pariol as a bobsleigh school. It has been designed to allow “juniors and kids” to practice.

However, the maintenance costs could be anywhere between 100,000 and 1 million Euros annually which may be far more than the income generated by visitors.

In contrast, the ski jump venue in Pragelato blends into the landscape through sensitive design that works with the natural gradients and contours of the location.

Other measures include the use of passive solar heating, rainwater drainage systems, special fabrics for stabilizing soil on the slopes and the establishment of ecological corridors to allow wildlife to cross.

In respect of some events like bobsleigh, future organizing committees might consider re-using and upgrading existing tracks and stadiums rather than building new ones if such facilities are convenient or nearby.

The next Winter Olympic Games is scheduled to be staged in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010.