When it won the bid to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi back in 2007, Russia guaranteed more than a nice snowpack. Russian authorities, including Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of the organizing committee for Russia’s Winter Olympics, along with President Vladimir Putin, proclaimed the 2014 Winter Games would be “green” and “zero waste,” and that they would invest heavily in renewable energy sources such as geothermal heat, wind, sun and biomass. Instead, environmental concerns were stifled by an opaque construction process with little oversight, an effort to silence whistleblowers, and pervasive corruption that led to an attitude of spare-no-expense, even when it came to ecological costs.
“Normally when you talk about the Olympics there’s a lot of good stuff to say,” said Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on sustainable sports issues. “The International Olympic Committee is sensible about climate change and ecologically progressive. The problem with Sochi is that there’s been zero transparency regarding the development process and it’s been impossible to monitor the ecological impacts.”
Hershkowitz said he is especially frustrated with Sochi because of the missed opportunity to engage the public and advance environmentally responsible measures, because while 13 percent of people pay attention to science, more than two-thirds of people pay attention to the Olympics. Not only that, but nearly every industry has a stake in the games — plastics, automotive, food, textiles, and energy corporations are all vendors or sponsors. In the broader trend towards a more environmentally conscious sports world, Hershkowitz sees Sochi as the outlier.
“The recent history of the Olympics is about using the vision of the event to stimulate a dialogue about the environmental process,” Hershkowitz said. “What we have here is a situation where people are afraid to talk. Where has the waste from construction gone? What have the habitat impacts been?”
While Hershkowitz acknowledges that “civilization has a cost” and carrying out the event with zero footprint would be unrealistic, “it’d be nice to learn from each Olympics how to do the next one better,” he said. “It’s interesting to see how an open society allows for much more environmental progress, frankly, because of the give-and-take between various stakeholders.”
In Sochi, it’s clear that Putin is the number one stakeholder — and he has staked a large part of his reputation on the outcome of this global event. In their quest to keep plans on track and scandal-free, Russian authorities have gone as far as to detain and expel environmental activists and minimize concerns raised by whistleblowers.
“The environmental situation has significantly improved here,” Putin recently told journalists while visiting the new Persian Leopard Breeding and Rehabilitation Center near Sochi. “In connection with the Olympics we agreed to restore the Persian leopard population. Let’s say that because of the Olympic Games, we have restored parts of destroyed nature.”
According to eyewitness accounts and reports from concerned organizations, far more nature has been destroyed than restored.
“The most dangerous and important part of the damage is the biodiversity lost in the area,” Suren Gazaryan, a zoologist and member of the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus, told TIME. “Parts of the national park have been completely destroyed. This area was the most diverse in terms of plant and animal life in Russia. There is also the added danger of increased landslides, mudflows and building collapses as a result of poor construction and hazardous waste dumping practices.”
Gazaryan is currently living in exile in Estonia after being slapped with criminal charges by Russia for his human rights work.
At the same time, environmental regulations have actually been relaxed to accommodate the Games. Legislation protecting national forests was revoked to allow for construction to occur in Sochi National Park, with the Olympic village affecting over 8,000 acres of the park. This mountainous area of the Western Caucasus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that had not experienced significant human impact.
With the eyes of the world on Sochi, Russian authorities have taken extreme steps to silence would-be critics in the lead-up to the Games. Yevgeny Vitishko, a geologist and prominent environmentalist with the group Environmental Watch on the Northern Caucasus has been jailed for the 15 days overlapping with the Olympics for swearing in public. On Wednesday, an appeals court upheld a three-year jail sentence for Vitishko, previously suspended, for a 2012 charge of hooliganism in which he spray-painted a fence.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a major collaborator with the United Nations Environment Program when it comes to sports and the environment. The IOC has their own environmental agenda that encourages countries to promote sustainability practices in their operations and to ensure air quality, water quality, green space and other improved socioeconomic conditions. The IOC has been notably absent from the discussion around Sochi’s environmental degradation or the Games’ impact on nearby towns that have been cut off by new highways and lack potable water.
The IOC contends that the local context of the Games must be taken into consideration, and that “the Sochi 2014 Games are believed to be the first global sports event in Russia to have taken environmental concerns and the principles of sustainability into consideration,” Salon reported.
When small or emerging cities host major sporting events, existing infrastructure is usually scant, so new facilities to house and transport the thousands of visitors must be hastily constructed. Russia spent nearly $9 billion on a 31-mile rail and road from Sochi to the mountains for the alpine events — more than the total cost of the 2010 Vancouver, 2006 Torino, or 2002 Salt Lake City Games. The scramble to construct the necessary infrastructure only adds to the temptation to overlook environmental commitments.
“As mega-events are increasingly awarded to places where infrastructure development is needed and comes as part of the deal, total costs will rise,” writes Will Jennings, who studies politics at the University of Southampton.
Jennings says that while mega-events offer great opportunities to emerging economies with a potential audience of billions, their leaders often don’t take into account the spiraling financial, ecological, and human costs associated with them.
Russia’s drive to host the Winter Games, no matter the cost, is also reflective of their long history of staging mega-projects at the state’s expense, according to Dr. Lowell Barrington, chair of the Department of Political Science at Marquette University and an expert on Russian politics and nationalism. Barrington believes that attitudes are still being shaped by the devastating environmental record of Soviet Russia and the idea that economic and environmental efforts are contradictory rather than complimentary. Socialist economic planning did not account for environmental costs when projects were undertaken, and large state-sponsored projects like the Sochi Olympics still have some of those past characteristics.
“Putin has made reestablishing Russia as a regional, and even global, power a central concern,” Barrington said via email. “The Olympics certainly help in this regard and have given Russia a ‘national pride’ boost. The problem with the Olympics is that they call into question Putin’s leadership and decision-making, including why Sochi was chosen in the first place.”
Climate-wise, Sochi is not the most obvious spot for the Winter Olympics, especially for a northern country like Russia. Only 1,500 miles from the site of the original Olympics in southern Greece some 2,700 years ago, it is a subtropical beachside resort town along the Black Sea in Russia’s warmest region. Thus far, it appears the Sochi Olympics are on track to set at least one record — the warmest Winter Olympics in history.
A recent report found that only six of the last 19 Winter Olympics locations will be cold enough by the end of the century to stage the Games again. The report also estimated that by 2050, Sochi would not be able to reliably host the Games. In 2014, the accumulation of snow has been of concern, with 710,000 cubic meters of snow collected during previous winters being banked on the mountains outside of Sochi, ready to be deposited. A similar scene unfolded in Vancouver in 2010 when unseasonably mild weather forced officials to dump snow on certain sites — the organizers later admitted to underestimating the impacts of climate change. In Sochi, more than 100 Winter Olympians have signed a petition urging world leaders to fight climate change.
While the balmy temperatures and less than ideal conditions upset alpine athletes in the mountains, down in Sochi, organizers had to prepare for a power demand that is double the city’s average. While some small renewable energy efforts have been made, most of the additional power comes from the new 180-MW natural gas Dzhubginsky power station, which opened within months of the Games. Since coming to power, Putin and his cabal of close-knit advisers have brought Russian oil and gas production back under state control after it was privatized during the post-Soviet Yeltsin-era. Russia is the biggest crude producer after Saudi Arabia and nearly half of government revenue comes from oil and gas. This isn’t good for the climate or the environment, as it reinforces Russian leaders’ predilection for continued fossil fuel expansion and enhances the associated negative externalities.
In an odd but telling partnership, Dow Chemical Company may be the saving grace when it comes to this Olympics’ environmental record. Putin also vowed that the Olympics would be the first carbon neutral Games, and by becoming the Official Carbon Partner of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Dow is committed to making this happen. Dow will offset both the direct carbon footprint as well as the travel-related emissions — which could total over 500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide — by investing in low-carbon technologies in infrastructure, industry and agriculture over the next decade.
“Carbon neutrality” is a loaded term and Dow’s somewhat vague plans will take over a decade, but it is a nonetheless a clean spot in an otherwise mucky scene. According to the Guardian, Dow is the only big sponsor of this year’s Olympics doing much to promote sustainability.
“I think there’s an inevitable trend in society towards a more progressive approach towards these events,” explained Sandy Simpson, a lecturer at UC Davis who teaches courses on the Olympics. “In the bid for the 2018 games there was tremendous opposition from citizens in Germany because of the potential environmental impact on the surrounding area. At the same time, South Korea was promising they will have all these great renewable energy facilities. 30 or 40 years ago, that wouldn’t have even been an issue.”
South Korea, a country that has vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020, will be hosting the next Winter Olympics in the northern city of PyeongChang. It nearly won the 2014 Games, losing out to Sochi by four votes.
PyeongChang’s bid included the aspiration to create a sustainable winter sports legacy through recycling rain and waste water, using natural lighting, investing in renewable energy and, surprise, being a carbon-free event. Whether South Korea will follow in Russia’s footsteps and allow environmental concerns to take a back seat to preserving the image of an unparalleled event remains to be seen.
In an account of his 2009 arrest in Sochi for n+1 Magazine, journalist Keith Gessen says that upon becoming President again in 2012, after a term as Prime Minister, Putin found that “nothing seemed to work, but the mess he found was entirely of his making.”
In Sochi, the messy, expensive Olympics are working, but they’re not going to win any medals for sustainability.