When Russian leaders submitted their winning bid to host the 2014 Olympics, they made some bold promises: for instance that Sochi would be a “zero-waste Games,” with meticulous waste management in both the staging, competition, and post-Games period. They also claimed that it would be a carbon-neutral Games; that having the Games would improve the Sochi environment; that they would respect the soil and water supplies; and that they would conform to all regulations about endangered species.
Yet it was almost immediately clear that these promises might not hold. Back in 2010, Greenpeace expressed reservations about the environmental impact of the Games, especially because almost all of the infrastructure was to be built from scratch on previously pristine land. The international organization lamented a lack of cooperation by Russian officials.
For their part, organizers at the time accused environmental organizations as a whole of trying to sabotage the Games. Any requirements to comply with environmental standards and regulations seemed, to them, unnecessary obstructions to having a smooth Olympics.
“The main problems that the organizers of the Olympic Games have to solve emerged as a result of cooperating with the independent ecological organizations which, instead of a constructive cooperation with the authorities, are about to disrupt the Winter Olympic Games in 2014,” Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister in charge of Sochi preparations, said in 2010.
There’s both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site nearby: the Western Caucasus, which was recognized for being one of the largest tracts of undeveloped mountains in Europe. However, Russia has removed part of the site from World Heritage protection to allow for Olympic development.
This troubles the World Heritage Committee, who wrote in a report this year, “The World Heritage Centre and IUCN are of the view that the changes to the legislation which make it possible to construct winter sports facilities inside the World Heritage property have significantly weakened the protective status of the property. They recall that the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly requested the State Party to abandon any plans for infrastructure development on the Lagonaki Plateau. They support the conclusion of the 2012 monitoring mission that the installation of tourism and skiing facilities on the Lagonaki Plateau would seriously affect the Outstanding Unique Value of the property…”
Lax government oversight has also allowed industry to renege on their promises. For instance, Gazprom, the largest company in Russia, allegedly built illegal garages and roads and cut down hundreds of trees in a national park adjacent to the new Krasnaya Polyana ski resort that will host many of the Olympic races.
The group has catalogued a decline in plant and animal species and general biodiversity. And about that zero-waste claim? Waste from the construction is allegedly being transported outside of the area, so that the promise is true for Sochi but the problems are simply exported elsewhere. Toxic waste has also been dumped in the Mzymta River.
And these are just a few examples of the many environmental violations which have been reported by multiple organizations. Not all have been followed up on or proved independently.
This week, new claims have surfaced further diminishing the no-waste claim. Associated Press (AP) reporters following up on a lead saw dump trucks from the state-owned railroad company dumping concrete slabs into an old limestone quarry, which was also full of tires, foam sheets, and other construction debris. All of this is from the most expensive infrastructure project of the Games, a railway and interstate connecting the airport to the Mountain Cluster. Anyone going to a ski event will use it.
Dumping is prohibited in the area, called Akhshtyr, under the Russian Water Code. That’s because the underlying rock is porous karst, so any contaminants can leach into the groundwater supply and the Mzymta River. About half of the drinking water in Sochi is supplied by the river.
Kozak has denied that any violations are taking place. He reportedly claimed to the AP that the only thing being dumped was soil, which “only improves the landscape of the Sochi National Park and does not harm it in any way.”
However, what the AP reporters saw seems irrefutable and members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are concerned.
“This would be a breach of confidence between the Russian authorities and the IOC,” former Lillehammer Organizing Committee chairman Gerhard Heiberg told the AP in a separate report the next day. “I really hope we will be able to solve this and work together with the Russian authorities… Somebody from the IOC should go and see this for him or herself and evaluate the situation.”
Luckily, the IOC is in a position to do just that. In an unfortunate coincidence for Sochi organizers, the venue is currently hosting the IOC’s World Conference for Sport and the Environment.
Newly-inaugurated IOC President Thomas Bach was on hand to give the main lecture in the opening plenary session on Thursday, “Beyond the Sporting Message: A Collective Vision for Sustainable Development.”
Dmitry Chernyshenko, the President and CEO of the Sochi Organizing Committee, was also a keynote speaker in the same session. One of Thursday’s afternoon sessions focused on Russian environmental legacies pre- and post-Sochi Olympics, and included many more members of the Sochi organizing squad.
It remains to be seen whether IOC members and other conference participants will take this opportunity to question organizers and Russian administrators about what is really happening in Sochi.
But as they focus on sessions like “Sport Contributing to the Sustainability Agenda of the UN” and “Legacies of the Olympic Games and the Olympic Bid for Sustainable Development,” they may want to consider whether it is valid to claim that the Olympics can have a sustainable legacy at all.
It’s not the first time an Organizing Committee has been accused of ignoring environmental regulations – Beijing springs to mind – and probably won’t be the last. However, some of the Sochi committee’s actions seem especially egregious. Moving forward, the question of the legacy may be whether the IOC is willing to give carte blanche to future Olympic organizers to destroy the environment for their showcase event.
For his part, Bach claims that the Olympics can and will be sustainable.
“Sport has long been well aware of this responsibility, and is moving forward with many like-minded partners by setting a good example,” the president said in an IOC release. “The Olympic Movement has already shown the international community how sport can make a tangible contribution to reducing environmental impacts. We are helping in the search for sustainable solutions by providing highly practical guidelines and strategies, for implementation globally, but also locally.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.