Faster, higher, greener: The ecological challenge is on

Sydney's Games earn 'bronze medal' on environmental performance.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Scattered around the Homebush Bay complex where the Sydney Olympics open Friday are five huge, grassy mounds that look like the work of an eccentric landscape designer.

But hidden beneath the mounds are carefully designed containment sites for hundreds of tons of toxic waste left after decades of dumping and manufacturing in the tidal bay.

"The Homebush Bay site was [once] an industrial wasteland," says Kate Hughes, director of the Sydney Olympic organizing committee's ecology programs. To Ms. Hughes, the little green hills are symbols of just how far this site has come in the seven years since preparations began. But they are also indicative of how large a task it's been to make these Games the greenest ever.

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For example, the athletes' village is billed as the world's largest solar suburb, earning an A+ from the environmental group Greenpeace. Yet the Games also got an F for "giving up too easily" on plans to implement a solar thermal power station. A complex water-recycling system keeps water usage to a minimum; half of all water used will come from reclaimed rainwater: A-. Yet the Games score a C- because some plumbing and other and construction use PVC, a plastic whose manufacture, use, and disposal releases large amounts of toxic chemicals, according to Greenpeace.

But despite the mixed report card, the real winner for these Summer Olympics may still be the environment.

"We count on future Olympic cities to use Sydney as a benchmark," says Blair Palese, the Olympics project coordinator for Greenpeace.

In the countdown to Friday, the Olympic complex and the people who use it are already being tested - and not just for drugs. The Canadians are winning as best recyclers in the dining halls, by separating their food scraps from cutlery and drink cans, according to the Olympic Village newspaper.

The fact is that Sydney's effort at staging what it likes to call the "Green Games" has caused a transformation in the Olympic movement. Ever since Sydney beat out Beijing in 1993, thanks in part to its environmental plans, the Olympics have been getting more and more cuddly with the environment.

Now, "if you haven't got it straight with the environment, you can't organize the Games," says Olav Myrholt, Norwegian environmental adviser for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). "There are expectations in the IOC that the environmental agenda is being improved on from one city to another."

The victories in Sydney extend beyond Homebush Bay.

Building with recycled materials and energy conservation goals has brought a significant base of knowledge to many of the leading players in the construction industry here, environmentalists say. And having the environment as a key component of Sydney's plans has also forced multinational corporate sponsors to keep the environment in mind.

Greenpeace, for instance, cites commitments by companies like Coca-Cola to phase out their use of environmentally-harmful refrigerants as one of the key victories in Sydney. And sponsoring the Games has put added pressure on sponsor General Motors' Australian division, Holden, to provide cars that use alternative fuels as official vehicles. One of General Motors' new fuel-cell prototypes will serve as the lead car for the Olympic Marathon, for example.

"Some of these people have. changed in spite of the fact they didn't want to change," says Michael Bland, environmental spokesman for the Sydney organizing committee. "It's not very often in this world that you'll see Greenpeace congratulating Coca-Cola," he adds. "Some strange things have happened here."

Yet despite creative efforts - including the worm farms that are composting some of the village food waste, Sydney's Olympics have still fallen short of what they promised in 1993, even organizers agree.

The thing seized on most often is the failure of the New South Wales government to meet its promise to thoroughly clean up Homebush Bay itself, and the neighboring Rhodes Peninsula, before the Olympics. The body of water is still one of the five worst dioxin waste spots in the world, according to Greenpeace.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the use of ozone-depleting gases in the air conditioning and refrigeration systems at the Olympic complex, something that the 1993 guidelines drawn up by Sydney in consultation with Greenpeace promised wouldn't happen. And there are worries about just what will happen in the long term to those five mounds of toxic waste capped in clay.

Mr. Bland says most of Sydney's failures were the result of technology not being available for organizers to use. When it comes to air conditioning and refrigeration, for example, the kinds of fridges that were called for in 1993 still aren't available in Australia. "There's a huge industry we've got to move.... If I gave you $10,000 right now you still wouldn't be able to buy one of those fridges in the contemporary Australian market," Bland says. "You'd have to go to Germany."

The question now is whether the environmental achievements here can be repeated. Efforts of organizers in Salt Lake City, environmentalists say, look pretty good, thanks in part to the use of existing venues for the 2002 Winter Games. But Athens, which will host the 2004 Summer Olympics, may be a different story. Putting on what is billed as the world's biggest peacetime gathering is a daunting task and already Athens is at odds with the IOC over even its most basic plans.

Athens organizers claim they are working on drawing up guidelines for the environment. But they caution Athens faces a tougher job than Sydney ever did. "The departure point of Sydney is very different from the departure point of Athens," says George Kazantzopoulos, the manager of Athens' environmental program.

According to Ms. Palese, Greenpeace is worried about transportation problems in Athens and also the destruction of some of the few wetlands left on the outskirts of the city to build rowing and sailing venues.

With notoriously polluted Beijing leading the five-city field of contenders to host the 2008 Olympics, it now looks like the role of the environment in the Olympics could be a lingering issue after Athens, too.

Liu Jingmin, the executive vice president of Beijing's bid committee, told a news conference last month that Chinese officials had drawn up an action plan to fall in line with IOC environmental standards by 2007. "By 2007 the solid waste will be harmlessly treated, 90 percent of the wastewater will be treated, and the whole city will be having 40 percent of its area covered with green," Liu said.

The last item will probably be achieved - the Chinese government is notorious for laying lawns and planting flowers almost overnight ahead of major events. But environmentalists say air pollution remains a big problem for Beijing and are worried nothing will change on that front.

Yet there's still hope for future host cities. Four years ago, while the world was watching the Olympics in Atlanta, construction hadn't even begun at the solar-powered athletes village in Sydney, Bland points out.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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