Olympic Greenwashing

NGOs sever ties with the Olympic Games

Today marks the beginning of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. And thanks to another dominant controversy surrounding the games, environmental concerns have gone largely unnoticed. Prince Albert II of Monaco, a well-known environmentalist, recently congratulated the Olympic Games’ environmental endeavours. Few people appear to know, however, that environmental groups actually walked away from a long-running relationship with the Olympics Committee four years ago.

While there have been many headline-grabbing Olympic Games in the past, some are calling Sochi the most controversial ever. The hottest topic of discussion is legislation banning “gay propaganda” which was passed in June, making it illegal to distribute gay rights material. LGBT rights have been so prominent that other issues concerning the Games, such as their environmental impact, have almost flown under the radar. So much so that Prince Albert, a long-time ecological advocate, congratulated the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for their efforts on the environmental front. In a written presentation accompanying a press conference in February for the Monegasque athletes, Prince Albert says: “The International Olympic Committee has just made recent advances on two issues which are dear to me.” The Prince congratulates the committee in their fight against drugs, as well as “the environmental aspects of the Games, during all stages of the organisation,” referring an IOC meeting which took place in December, establishing an environmental framework for future Olympic Games.

Sochi is in fact a subtroptical environment and the area will rely heavily on snowmakers for the games

The environment was indeed declared the third pillar of Olympism, alongside sport and culture, back in 1994. A paragraph on environmental protection was added in Rule 2 of the Olympic Charter following the Olympic Congress held in Paris that year. Following this change, the IOC started to work with NGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace, according to Masha Vinokurova, media officer at WWF Russia. “WWF has been constructively engaged with the Olympic movement for nearly two decades,” she told The Riviera Times.

Referring to the Olympics of Torino in 2006 and to London in 2012, she said, “These sporting mega events have been increasingly mitigating their impact on local environments and natural resources whilst seeking to maximise sustainability benefits.”

When Sochi was announced as the host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, they pledged a ‘zero waste’ event. In September 2009, Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Kozak said that organisers were committed to considerably improving the environment around the area of Sochi by the end of Olympic construction. The environment in question is actually a national park. “The aim is to host the first ever ‘green’ Games,” the Sochi organising committee stated in a press release on 18th January 2011.

“Olympic organisers did not conduct a topographic survey for construction. This led to ridiculous situations, when project documents said that a site located up in the mountains is inhabited by dolphins and pelicans.”

And according to Vinokurova from WWF Russia, the organisation was “involved in detail with the Sochi Games since the bidding stage, working with local partners including Greenpeace,” adding that NGOs participated in monthly meetings. “However, while participants agreed to many things that could be done better, nothing was being implemented by the organisers,” Vinokurova told The Riviera Times, “so the whole process was deemed useless by independent NGOs. In 2010, WWF and Greenpeace withdrew from the environmental consultation of Sochi 2014.”

But even now, four years after the collaboration ended, the organising committee for the Sochi Games continues to use the ‘WWF’ and ‘Greenpeace’ names as a testament to their environmental pledge. In a factsheet entitled ‘The environment and sustainable development’ on the IOC’s official website, dated January 2014, they say: “Sochi 2014 has harnessed the stimulus for sustainable development in collaborating with UNEP, the UNDP and independent environmental organisations such as the WWF and Greenpeace.” When questioning the collaboration, the organising committee in Sochi redirected The Riviera Times to press releases dating back to 2007 – before the NGOs walked away from the entire process.

Meanwhile, given the recent misfortune of Greenpeace in Russia – 28 of their members as well as two journalists were detained for 100 days from September to December 2013 – the fact they are being referred to as “collaborators” has come as a surprise to Greenpeace. Isabelle Philippe, communication officer for Greenpeace France, told The Riviera Times, “After checking with my colleagues from Greenpeace Russia and Greenpeace International, I can confirm that we did not collaborate in the implementation of the Games, not on an environmental level, nor any other level. Greenpeace Russia has several times underlined these games’ harmful consequences on the environment.”

While Russia is recognised for its cold climate, Sochi has, in fact, a subtropical climate. So for the Winter Olympics, it is relying heavily on artificial snow. “You’d have to spend a long time searching the map of this huge country to find someplace with no snow. Putin found it,” said former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Boris Nemtsov, in a documentary called ‘Putin’s Games’.

But not even that makes the WWF’s list of major mistakes for Sochi 2014. “Because of the haste, Olympic organisers did not conduct a topographic survey for construction,” Vinokurova told The Riviera Times. She said they relied only on “convenient” data from books. “This led to ridiculous situations, when project documents said that a site located up in the mountains is inhabited by dolphins and pelicans.”

Vinokurova adds: “Due to a lack of basic environmental information about the area, organisers did not implement any activities to at least partly compensate for the damage.” As a result, she claims, the construction of the joint highway-railway route “completely destroyed the fishery value of the Mzymta River.”

“The government refused to fund a post-Olympic environmental rehabilitation programme”

Perhaps most significantly, nature conservation legislation was particularly weakened under the pretext of Olympic needs, according to Vinokurova. “For example, in 2006 the law on specially protected nature areas was amended, allowing the organisation of large-scale athletic events in national parks. Starting from January 2007, Russia abolished compulsory environmental expertise for construction projects,” she said.

Last but not least, according to the WWF, “the government refused to fund a post-Olympic environmental rehabilitation programme.” Developed in 2012 by Russian and international experts including those from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the post-Olympic environmental rehabilitation programme was estimated to cost around 30 million dollars. The total budget for the Sochi Games came in at just over 50 billion dollars.

Naysán Sahba, a UNEP spokesperson, told The Riviera Times that the arrangement signed between UNEP and the Organising Committee did not have provisions for post-games assessments. “It is recommended that a post-Games environmental assessment is undertaken to accurately quantify the environmental impact and recommend the appropriate remedial action,” he said.

In response, Sochi organisers say that the Olympic venues were certified with ‘green’ construction standards. During a meeting for the preparation of the Games, Alexander Tkachev, governor of the Krasnodar region where Sochi 2014 will be taking place, said, “In seven years, the purity of the atmospheric air has improved twofold. This became possible thanks to the huge complex of works, which we all have carried out.”

Last month, news service Al Jazeera reported that in the same month that 29 Greenpeace activists were released from prison, two Russian environmental activists criticising the Sochi Games were given prison sentences. In what Al Jazeera called a “crackdown on green activism”, environmentalist Evgeny Vitishko and zoologist Suren Gazaryan were sentenced to three years in a penal colony for violating a curfew imposed in 2012. “It seems that every other day, police in Sochi are detaining and stopping people who are political and environmental activists,” Rachel Denber, a Human Rights Watch deputy director, told Al Jazeera. “It has been a steady stream of harassment.”

Nine athletes from the Côte d’Azur and Monaco will be competing in the Sochi Winter Olympics, which could become more famous for the headlines than for the sportsmanship. And thanks to one particular controversy, the organising committee’s environmental commitment – or lack there-of – has managed to fly right under the radar, for now.

Also published on the Riviera Times Online

Photo by Stefan Krasowski