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Sustainable means a different kind of Olympics

Jan 28, 2014
For Switzerland today, a pioneering spirit means effectively reducing one’s carbon footprint. And using one’s own resources in such a way that generations to come are able to go on living a worthwhile life together with the rest of the world. Anything else is a misrepresentation, like the planned Winter Olympics in Graubünden in 2022. Sustainable Winter Olympics need a change of direction, something that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which dictates the terms, is not even close to initiating.

Some three generations after the last Winter Olympics were held in St. Moritz in 1948, they are to be held there again in 2022. Back then, there was certainly still something of a pioneering spirit when it came to organising such an event; after all, there was still some sense of proportion between the scale of the event and the Olympic spirit. But the luxury resort of St. Moritz still managed to overstretch itself and was forced painfully to pay off its debts. So what has changed between then and now? First and foremost the scale, the sustainability, and the spirit of it all.

Just a marketing idea
The size of the Winter Olympics has increased by several orders of magnitude. There are now more and more nations, many times the number of athletes, many more competitive events, and a much longer duration. Plus thousands of officials, volunteers and security staff, masses of spectators, thousands of extra beds, an oversized infrastructure, and bloated budgets. The venues in particular are left with severely impacted environments, not to mention huge debts and maintenance costs for the upkeep of the facilities. The impact on nature itself has increased visibly, and the amount of energy required to operate the facilities and maintain mobility has multiplied. As a result, the carbon footprint left behind by mega-events such as these has grown inexorably.

These are precisely the aspects those in charge intend to use to buff up the shine of sustainability for Switzerland, with the slogan “Graubünden 2022 – A Charter for Sustainability, Innovation and Legacy”. The intention of drawing up a vision of sustainability for the Canton of Graubünden as a whole is to be welcomed. CIPRA President Dominik Siegrist says quite categorically that “The fact that sustainability is being showcased now, with an Olympic candidature at stake, means that it has to be regarded more as a marketing idea than a serious and credible intention.”

No three pillars of sustainability
Siegrist, Professor for Eco-tourism and Parks at the University of Applied Sciences in Rapperswil, adds: “We would very much like to see a sustainability strategy for Graubünden that has traction independently of any such candidature”, something environmental organisations have been demanding for years. He adds: “The vision of sustainability as it currently stands appears to lack quantified efficiency targets. For instance it proposes a ‘significant lowering of the carbon footprint’ for the whole of Graubünden leading up to the Winter Olympics.

But what does that actually mean: approximately 30 per cent by 2022 and 80 per cent by 2050? What we need is a clear orientation based on known standards, for example a ‘2000 watt society’. I would remind you that if we do want to become sustainable, we need a CO2 reduction of 80 to 95 per cent,” emphasises Siegrist. The carbon footprint will be significantly increased by all the extra transport and traffic, the air travel, etc., involved in getting to the Winter Olympics in Graubünden, the construction of permanent facilities, and the setting-up and dismantling of temporary infrastructure. A genuine sustainability strategy highlights measurable effects; pretty visions and objectives alone are certainly not enough. So much for ecological sustainability.

An obstacle to genuine innovation
So what about economic sustainability? Winter Olympics like Graubünden 2022 also lead us well away from the path of sustainable tourism. The intended impact of advertising on the global market and the focus on new customer bases in emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil serve to promote an energy and capital-intensive tourism which is not an option in the long term.

The anticipated effects of the Olympic Games on job creation have never materialised. For genuine innovations in sustainable tourism there is by contrast a lack of funds. Several billion Swiss francs will be spent for two weeks of Olympic fire. What will remain for St. Moritz, Davos, Graubünden and Switzerland as a whole is a huge mountain of debt – and the environmental impact. That is what the experience of the last Winter Games has taught us and what the predictions for the next two indicate. The level of the deficit is ultimately determined by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which dictates and alters the terms without itself bearing any risk. Anyone interested in the economic and/or sustainable aspects of such an undertaking will not invest under these uncertain conditions and unbelievable dependencies.

And what about social sustainability? The deficits mean that funding for the significant challenges that lie ahead will be lacking: social welfare projects, youth and education, culture and grassroots sports are just a few examples. Finally, with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Graubünden, this generation would bequeath the task of debt reduction to the generations that follow.

For more than sixty years CIPRA has been campaigning for life and sustainable development in the Alps and for young people in the Alps to be free to shape their lives as they see fit. CIPRA is therefore unequivocally opposed to holding the 2022 Winter Olympics in Graubünden.


Filed under: Olympics