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Faster, higher, greener: The ecological challenge is on

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

By Shawn DonnanSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 2000


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.

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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.

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."