It’s an absolutely grey day in Beijing with a mist in the air thick enough for even Beijingers to complain about. What better backdrop could there be for the IOC World Conference on Sport and the Environment?
With worries that particulate-clogged air will send marathoners wheezing toward oxygen masks after they cross the finish line, Beijing has finally matched Athens for some fear-mongering.
In Greece the doomsayers said work would not be completed and that the roads would be clogged. Neither happened, fortunately, in Athens.
There are no doubts in Beijing that the work will get done. But will the air be clear on August 8, 2008 – and for days after? That now is the yoke around the neck of Beijing. Its image is on the line over whether blue skies cover the Games instead of smog.
This week’s Sport and Environment Conference won’t do much to abate pollution next year. In fact, the IOC President joked that CO2 emissions would likely rise as a result of the speech-making across three days. There is a lot of talk, about 60 speakers in all.
But while there is no immediate solution to Beijing air quality in the speeches at the conference, the impact of the IOC’s attention to the Green agenda can be seen in the way planning for the Olympics has changed. Since the 1990s, when the IOC first launched its first environmental efforts, organizing committees have moved beyond lip service to create more environmentally sensitive Games.
Just as major companies around the globe consider their attention to the environment as best business practice, so has the IOC.
Arguably the choice of Sochi as the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics seems to challenge that assumption. The Russian resort will require deforestation, new roads and the construction of venues in undeveloped mountain areas. Sochi’s bid for the Games that was far more intrusive than the two other 2014 candidates.
But in another era, the effect of the Games on the ecosystem in Sochi might have been overlooked. Now, organizers will have to address the negative effects the Olympic project might bring and how to mitigate them.
Sponsors, too, are on the bandwagon, rolling out initiatives for their operations during the Games that fit with the new Green mentality of business and the environmental wishes of the IOC.
Coca-Cola, for example, has used each Olympics since Sydney to take new environmental steps. All of its coolers in Beijing will use carbon dioxide systems instead of the old one based on ozone-depleting Freon. Repairs to these coolers now involve replacing a part, rather than hauling a unit by truck to a shop.
For Beijing, fewer journeys by truck means fewer emissions for the air above the city. While this won’t be enough by itself to clear the skies for next summer, it’s a good example of incremental changes driven by the Olympics that play a part in solving the problem.
Whether the air will be clear next August isn’t a guarantee for Beijing. But steps are being taken, such as mandatory reductions of car usage and the shutting of factories that might make a difference -- a new kind of legacy. New stadiums used to be seen as a definition of Olympic legacy. For Beijing, breathable air may be the most valuable gift of the Games. Op Ed is a weekly column of opinion and ideas from Around the Rings founder and editor-in-chief Ed Hula. Comments, as well as guest columns are welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org