Olympian Mess

Utah's promise of green games go up in PR smoke

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notorious for political leaders who are overtly hostile to environmental regulations, Utah was a dubious choice to host what was mandated to be the first environmentally sound Winter Games. The Beehive State is also home to the Sagebrush Rebellion (which claims national parks are illegal) and other rabid anti-ecology movements that oppose federal public land policies while favouring unfettered resource exploitation. Emblematic of an entrenched culture of corruption within the Olympic hierarchy, the Salt Lake gift-giving scandal set the stage for a series of real estate deals that enriched several wealthy business people. Billionaire oilman Robert Earl Holding, a member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) for the 2002 Olympics, used his high-powered political connections to secure congressional approval of a lucrative land exchange that overrode federal environmental laws.

Holding acquired 558 hectares at the base of the Snowbasin ski resort from the U.S Forest Service, and Congress gave him carte blanche to develop the region. Congress also pitched in a $15-million (U.S.) subsidy for an access road to Holding’s resort. From that point on, to use a ski metaphor, it was all downhill for the natural environment.

Pristine mountain wilderness soon morphed into condos, restaurants and ski runs. Parking lots encroached on riverbed areas, degrading trout habitat and discharging waste runoff into the watershed.

As approved by Congress, these developments were exempt from all the usual public reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The waiver was justified, according to Utah senator Orrin Hatch, in order to facilitate the staging of the Winter Olympics. But critics contend that the public was hoodwinked.

“No land swap or other similar venture was necessary to stage the Games,” says Howard Peterson, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s site selection team that evaluated Snowbasin as a venue for ski race competitions.

The Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), a volunteer organization set up by the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC), wielded no real authority. Several members, including Utah Sierra Club chapter head Ivan Weber, quit the committee after they concluded that ecological concerns were a low priority .

“When environmentalists would bring up an issue,” Weber explains, “SLOC would say, “It’s too early to do anything.’ And then at some point later they’d say, “It would have been nice, but it’s too late now.'”

Weber compares the Olympic movement to “a dysfunctional family,” a situation he attributes mainly to corporate sponsorship of the Games. “If you aren’t going to come up with major bucks to support the Winter Olympics, they won’t want to talk to you,” he says.

If there was ever a sporting event that required an image make-over, it was the 2002 Olympics. A PR campaign trumpeting the Green Games served as a much-needed image-booster for a Winter Games tainted by scandal. “Get the word out and mention “Green Games’ as often as possible,” SLOC director of environmental programs Diane Conrad Gleason told a group of volunteers, “because the more people hear that, the more they will believe it.”

Public relations, however, could not mitigate the negative impact of major construction projects like the ski jump at Winter Sports Park, which left a large, ugly gash on the mountainside.

When Salt Lake was vying to host the Winter Games, bid officials promised that every person who purchased a ticket to the 2002 Olympics would be able to ride public transportation to their event. But SLOC reneged on this pledge and adopted a transportation plan relying heavily on private automobiles.

Thirty-five million dollars was allocated to build new parking lots and expand old ones in order to accommodate a huge influx of traffic. SLOC acquired a fleet of 4,000 gas-guzzling SUVs (which are exempt from U.S. clean-air standards) to ferry athletes and others between 10 venues and the Olympic Village in a 155-square-kilometre area. Chemical salts that pollute the watershed will be used to clear the snow and keep the roads open 24 hours a day.

But SLOC’s chief environmental officer sees a silver lining in the smog — emissions credits. Various companies in Utah and other states pollute less than they are allowed, Gleason explains, and some have donated their unused pollution credits to the Olympics. These donations, she claims, will counterbalance any emissions increases related to the Games, resulting in “the first Olympics with net-zero emissions.”

Critics scoff at the notion of trading emissions, since nothing can change the fact that more emissions will be discharged into the air because of the Olympics than would have been there otherwise. “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors and bad arithmetic,” says a Utah state environmental official.

According to Peter Berg, co-founder of Guard Fox Watch, an international project monitoring ecological issues relating to the Winter Games, “The Olympics should not only avoid being environmentally destructive, it should also be a showcase for sustainable development.”

Two years ago, Berg and Japanese ecologist Kimiharo To met with Salt Lake Olympics officials to urge them to feature an array of green alternatives, including state-of-the-art solar panels and compost toilets. But no money was available to demonstrate new technologies.

When the 2002 Games are over, Olympic officials will leave behind a skeletal staff while others move on to the next show. And the true cost of hosting the Salt Lake Olympics won’t be clear until much later. From Alternet

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