Norway's White Olympics Go Green

SHORTLY after checking into their rooms at the 17th Winter Olympics, many media members discovered a card asking for their cooperation at the first ``green'' Games.

``Dear Guest,'' the message began. ``Can you imagine how many tons of towels are unnecessarily washed every day in hotels all over the world and the monstrous amounts of washing powder needed, which ends up polluting our water?''

A towel left on the rail, the card explained, means ``I'll use it again.'' To encourage solidarity, the message concluded: ``Together - for the environment.''

``We have tried to achieve a third dimension in the Games,'' says Osmund Ueland, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee's environmental director. ``Sport and culture are already in the Olympic charter, and now we want to add the environment.''

Consideration for nature and the use of natural resources have receiving a lot of attention at these Games.

One Norwegian publication has compiled a list of accomplishments in this area under the headline, ``ABC's of the Green Games.''

It begins with ``A'' for audits, as in the environmental audits made in the routines of all the Olympic competition venues. It ends with ``Z'' for Zamboni, the name of the ice-resurfacing machines that are powered here by electrical batteries instead of propane.

The genesis of all this environmental interest was an attempt to block the Games from ever being held in this quiet, pristine region of southern Norway. The resistance was organized in the early 1980s after it became clear that a group of local businessmen were serious in their desire to bring the Olympics to Lillehammer to revitalize the region.

``Our conclusion very early was that we had to fight this at any cost, use any legal means to stop it,'' says Kare Olerud, information services manager for the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature, which has an office in the center of Lillehammer.

Thus, a campaign of public information was generated under the slogan ``The Olympics - A Mistaken Investment'' that opposed the Games because of the environmental strain and damage they would cause.

Public support coalesced around the effort to keep the Olympics out, much as once occurred in Colorado to prevent the Games from invading the Rockies in the 1970s.

But after Albertville, France, was selected ahead of Lillehammer and other bidders to host the 1992 Winter Games, Olerud says Norway's environmental community let down its guard. A rude wakeup call soon followed with the surprise announcement six years ago that Lillehammer had been selected to host the first Games using the new Olympic calendar of alternating winter and summer Olympics.

At this point, the environmentalists rejected either giving in or mounting protests. ``The majority favored trying something new, which was to build a tool with which we could work from inside [the local Olympic organizing committee],'' Olerud says.

This desire not only met with the approval of Norway's Ministry of Environment, it was funded by the ministry to the tune of more than $100,000 a year since 1988. The upshot was something called the Environmentally Friendly Olympics Project, which brought nongovernmental pressure groups together under one banner.

A high priority was placed on working together with Lillehammer's Olympic organizers. The awkward partnership reached an early crisis point, however, when a plan was unveiled to build a speed-skating rink on a wetland in Hamar that conservationists had long defended against development.

A major battle began brewing between Hamar officials and environmentalists. A mediator was brought in to negotiate an important compromise among the Olympic organizers, town and county officials, and conservationists - repositioning the arena so that it would be less disruptive to the bird sanctuary. From this point, Olympic organizers began to define cooperation with environmentalists as one of the criteria for success.

``The good thing here is that a process is started that I think will be a major legacy of these Games,'' Olerud says. He has been encouraged by an early visit that Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, paid to the Lillehammer headquarters for Project Environment Friendly Olympics. He also sees the IOC's positive response to an environmental-action plan and an invitation to present it at the IOC's centennial congress in Paris in June as good signs.

Though a good working relationship exists, the project leaders persist in monitoring environment-related Olympic developments. In a sense, they serve as watchdogs and consultants.

Olerud says that in their eagerness to put on the Green Games, Lillehammer's Olympic organizers have sometimes indulged in gimmicky and cosmetic efforts. As an example, he points to the medal award podiums made of glacial ice.

``The organizers say this is using natural resources and that after the Olympics the ice will simply melt away,'' Olerud says. ``But it's not that environmentally friendly to go up in the mountains and get glacial ice and transport it all the way to Lillehammer. So we said you have to be careful how you describe things. Be modest. Don't get caught up in the environmental rhetoric.''

Now, he adds, the Lillehammer Organizing Committee hesitates to boast and acknowledges it is trying to make the best out of what is basically an ``environmentally unfriendly concept.''

While there's an up side to much of what has been done to make these white Olympics green, the Norwegian Society for the Conservation of Nature has produced a map of the region showing the plusses and minuses.

In the case of the sled track, this evaluation tips its hat to the organizers for blending the structure into surrounding terrain. On the down side, however, is the very limited post-Olympics use for the bobsled and luge run and its enormous consumption of energy.

The environmentalists lobbied the Olympic organizers to farm out the sledding events to an existing bobsled and luge track somewhere else in Europe. When Olympic officials refused this suggestion, the emphasis turned to weighing in against a plan to build the bobsled and luge track alongside the ski jumps and freestyle ski areas. ``This would have altered Lillehammer altogether,'' Olerud says. In a compromise, the tracks were moved out of town and, like the ski jumps, built to harmonize with the surrounding terrain as much as possible.

In the future, Olerud hopes that the environmental ethic planted at the Lillehammer Games will grow not only to influence how the Olympics are conducted, but where they are held. With an environmental manual, he says the IOC ``can filter out bidding cities that do not have their environmental act in place. The IOC can kind of dictate the terms here.''

Sydney's successful bid for the 2000 summer Olympics was reportedly helped by its good-faith attention to the environment. Slovakia, meanwhile, could run into trouble trying to land the 2002 Winter Games, so long as it plans to build Olympic facilities on national park land.

A group called Alp Action, which undertakes Alpine conservation efforts with business partners, has recommended that the Winter Olympics rotate among three permanent sights in Europe, North America, and Asia.

In the meantime, it's back to drying off with the same bath towel.

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