Questioning the Games

Green Groups Take the Olympics to Task

The highly efficient Olympic Village in Vancouver has been called one of the "greenest neighborhoods in north America."©

Like many people, I’ve been tuning in to coverage of the Olympic Games—from luge, to moguls, to figure skating—captivated by what feats of strength and grace the human body is capable of. With such worldwide attention and grand-scale showmanship, it seems almost inappropriate to calculate the emissions and "sustainability" of the Vancouver Olympics. Each Olympics aims to be the greenest, and Vancouver is no different. As E wrote in a recent feature “Are the Games Really Green?” there’s a certain amount of greenhouse gas emissions—specifically 330,000 tons along with ecosystem and habitat damage—associated with creating and hosting the Games that’s just inevitable.

When organizers do build arenas, tracks and buildings, they aim to set a green example. That includes the highly efficient Olympic Village in Vancouver, the temporary home for more than 2,000 skiers, snowboarders, figure skaters, curlers and other competitors, that has been called one of the "greenest neighborhoods in north America" by organizers and the National Resources Defense Council. When the Games have ended, the mini-city’s buildings will be turned into mixed-income housing, and aim for Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. A 64-unit building called Southeast False Creek that will later become senior housing is actually net zero—meaning it produces as much energy as it consumes.

Advancing a Cause

An area of Canada"s ancient Boreal forest as large as Florida could be cleared to make way for tar sands oil extraction.©

But the Olympics are polarizing, and draw the ire of activists who see the Games as wasteful, destructive and out of step with their own agendas. Figure skater Johnny Weir—who wore a fur-trimmed outfit during the Nationals—decided to stay in the Olympic Village instead of a hotel as a result of what he describes as threatening harassment from anti-fur activists.

And now Friends of the Earth is using the Olympics to generate attention to tar sands exploitation in Canada. The group is particularly concerned that several oil companies involved in strip mining operations are also Olympic sponsors.

“Big Oil is counting on America’s fossil fuel addiction to make this race profitable,” the group writes. “The industry wants to build new pipelines to double imports of dirty tar sands oil into the United States. As you read this, the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline sits on President Obama’s desk waiting for approval.”

That pipeline would carry 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast, FOE reports, but at a huge environmental and public health cost—including the destruction of ancient Boreal forest the size of Florida, to be "replaced with open pit mines, smoke stacks and toxic ponds."They’re urging U.S. citizens—and Olympics watchers—to get wise, and use commercial breaks to take action by sending e-mails to President Obama asking that he deny the permit to extend the Keystone pipeline. And then to continue enjoying the mostly sustainable skating.

BRITA BELLI is editor of E.