2016 Summer Olympics: A Green Nightmare?


The potential for the Summer and Winter Olympic Games to fashion impact is vast, as the spectacle not only costs and generates billions of dollars, but also directly effects millions of sports fans, athletes, policy makers, spectators, and environmental enthusiasts.One of the chief considerations when awarding a bidding city the privilege of hosting the Games is the anticipated sustainability of the event. With such worldly viewership and participation, the Games exist as semiannual benchmarks with which to measure the rigor of, and commitment to, sustainability implementations in various hosting cities around the globe.

"Sports can and should play a leading role in the promotion of a more sustainable world. Since the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, the Olympic movement's environmental awareness has grown. Our goal is to integrate sustainability into all dimensions of the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics Games and thus create a legacy for all society."

- Carlos Arthur Nuzman, President, Organizing Committee, 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

This August, 28 sports and 38 disciplines will be displayed at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.IOCThe International Olympic Committee (IOC) has predicted that nearly 500,000 tourists will visit Brazil for the spectacle. The price tag for the Summer Games seems to be ever-increasing, last quoted in January at 39.1 billion Brazilian reais, or approximately 10.9 billion USD (Reuters.com), a cost that has augmented from an estimated total expense in 2008 of 28.9 billion Brazilian reais (Wall Street Journal). The increase has been primarily attributed to inflation, rising salaries in Brazil, and the addition of golf and rugby to the Games.In fact, the notion that hosting massive sporting events is actually correlated with economic prosperity is somewhat novel. The old mindset was that a host city for the Olympic Games was unlikely to gain much else beyond prestige. Seemingly, as the cost of hosting the Games rose irrevocably, so too did the benefits. But, the jury is still out. Just last year, in response to the billions spent on both the World Cup and the Summer Games, hundreds of protestors flooded the streets of Brazil, complaining that government money would be better spent on health care and education.

RIO 2016 SUSTAINABILITY MANAGEMENT PLAN:Despite the protests, Brazil has trudged on.A collaboration between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the 2016 Olympics Organizing Committee, and the local and national Brazilian governments has resulted in the development and execution of a robust Sustainability Management Plan.The plan focuses on three pillars: Planet, People and Prosperity, and the Organizing Committee is pursuing various sustainability initiatives, including, but not exclusive to:
  • Fueling buses and trucks used for the Games with biodiesel, comprised of 20% recycled cooking oil.
  • Developing intelligent routes to curtail transportation time for the 30 million items that will be brought to Rio for the Games.
  • Emphasizing waste management both for the preparation and execution of the Games, including the publication of a sustainable packaging guide mandating certain requirements.
  • Conducting Life cycle analysis on 106 of the materials that will be used by the Games.
  • Ensuring that all people with any impairment will be able to participate in, or watch, the Games. In order to create an entirely wheelchair friendly event, staff were required to use wheelchairs for a full day, including going to the restrooms and venturing out on the streets for meals.

But there are a few dark clouds looming over the potential sustainability of the event.The harsh reality is that despite the Olympics transporting hundreds of thousands of people and producing tonnes and tonnes of waste, the greatest environmental concern is neither transportation nor recycling. It's water.

 "The Promise Rio Couldn't Keep"

"Rio de Janeiro's bid for the Summer Games featured an official commitment to cleaner waters. But with less than six months to go, trash and contamination continue to lurk" (ESPN, February 2016).

It's a fair accusation. Rio's sailing, canoeing, and rowing venues have long been highly polluted with viruses and bacteria - a contamination that is still so catastrophic that health officials are deeming athletes to be at risk of becoming violently ill and being unable to compete in the Games. Training athletes have already become sick and a number of athletes and journalists have stated their intent not to intend the Games at all.pollutionLess than a year ago, ESPN reported on a Rio investigation that found the following: "Three types of human viruses (in the water) that cause stomach, respiratory and other illnesses; bacteria that live in the intestines and may lead to cholera, dysentery, and Hepatitis A. Chronically contaminated waters that compare to third world countries. Beaches that were once prime spots now vacant or littered with rotting fish. To win the Olympic Bid, Brazil had promised to clean up its waters and build treatment centers."In fact, the actual written promise stated that 80% of overall sewage would be collected and treated by 2016 and that the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (home to the rowing and sprint canoe/kayak events) would be completely restored. Yet, less than a year after making said promise, Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão admitted there would simply "not be enough time" to fulfill the nation's promise. In other words, contamination would still be prevalent.It's not going to happen because there was not enough commitment, funds and energy. - Mario Andrade, spokesman for the 2016 Games.The severity of the risk to the community's health is troubling. Equally, if not more, troubling is the lack of any sort of negative consequence for breaking a promise related to implementation of sustainability - a seemingly dangerous precedence to establish.ZICA TO IMPEDE ATTENDANCE?An entirely separate, albeit equally unsettling, hurdle to a successful Summer Games is the advent of Zica. In January, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zica "a medical health emergency", recommending pregnant women abstain from traveling to Zica-inflicted countries.Brazil hosting the Games postulates a tremendous risk - specifically, medical experts are concerned that athletes will contract the disease and bring it back to their home nations. The typical Zica manifestations are skin rash, conjunctivitis, muscular and joint pain, headaches, fevers, and other flu-like symptoms. However, newer research has connected Zica to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a terrible virus that causes microcephaly and other birth defects.A collaboration of 150+ medical experts wrote and signed a letter to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), urging the organization to postpone or move the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee was copied on the letter."We agree with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommendation that workers should 'Consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission.' If that advice were followed uniformly, no athlete would have to choose between risking disease and participating in a competition that many have trained for their whole lives. It is unethical to run the risk, just for Games that could proceed anyway, if postponed and/or moved...The Brazilian strain of Zika virus harms health in ways that science has not observed before. Similar to what FIFA did for SARS and the Women's World Cup, we recommend that WHO convene an independent group to advise it and the IOC in a transparent, evidence-based process in which science, public health, and the spirit of sport come first. Given the public health and ethical consequences, not doing so is irresponsible."Read the letter in its entirety here.Former United States PGA and Masters champion, Vijay Singh, and Australian superstar golfer, Marc Leishman, recently publicly announced their withdrawal from the Games, due to Zica concerns. Golfers Adam Scott, Louis Oosthuizen, and Carl Schwartzel, and U.S. Cyclist, Tejay van Gardener, have also backed out.A multitude of other athletes and journalists are increasingly expressing hesitation in participating in the Olympics, but the magnitude of the effect of both pollution and Zica on the actual attendance of the Games is still unclear.Only time will tell.