Organizers of the 2004 Summer Olympics have been taking a verbal beating from environmental groups, but the lowpoint came when Greenpeace had higher praise for multinational corporations than for Athens' efforts.
Yes, Greenpeace, the group that made a name for itself by taking on multinationals, had praise for Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Unilever — and contempt for officials in Greece and at the International Olympic Committee.
In a report last week on the Athens Olympics, Greenpeace thanked the companies for following up on a pledge during the 2000 Sydney Olympics to use refrigeration systems that don't emit a chemical that eats away at Earth's ozone layer.
"However, corporate action is only half the picture," Greenpeace said. "For a complete solution, governments must act. Politicians cannot sit back and just wait for the market to deliver."
The World Wildlife Fund was no less critical, issuing a scorecard that failed Athens organizers in almost every category and giving up any hope of a green Olympics.
"Greece must now move forward and look at what can be done to reverse the environmental impacts the day after the games," Demetres Karavellas, the fund's director in Greece, said in releasing the scorecard.
Even the United Nations Environment Program, which tends to be diplomatic in its statements, lamented that environmental promises for the Athens Olympics had "fallen short."
Environment as the third pillar
When Athens bid for the Olympics, it promised to incorporate environmental projects in line with the International Olympic Committee's policy of making the environment the "third pillar" of the Olympics along with sports and culture.
The U.N. Environment Program acknowledged that the Athens organizers had a higher priority — security in a post-Sept. 11 world — but urged future Olympics hosts to plan ahead for the environment.
Karavellas said the IOC shared the blame, saying "it has done very little to keep this from crumbling under the weight of other priorities."
The IOC, for its part, insists it hasn't given the environment short shrift. “We have worked closely with the Athens Organizing Committee to ensure environmental protection measures were considered right from the start,” IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said in response to recent criticism.
And the Athens organizers have said that while they pressed contractors to include environmentally friendly features in all sports venues, they could not force them to do so. They also point to several successes, among them:
- Creating more public transportation to reduce smog and crowding.
- Preserving wetlands at the rowing facility and trees at the shooting venue.
- Planting one million large bushes, 290,000 trees and 11 million shrubs.
- Placing recycling bins at venues.
- Using an organic pesticide against mosquitoes.
'Miserable' effort, activist says
Environmentalists question even some of the successes, arguing that putting the rowing facility where it is actually hurts the wetlands area and that the recycling is a token effort, especially when compared to the push made at the Sydney Olympics.
“Instead of moving forward even just a little bit, Athens has actually gone back, way back as far as their environmental record is concerned, it is pretty miserable,” Nikos Haralambidis, Greenpeace's director in Greece, said in issuing its report.
“Athens would not get a single mark," he said, "were it not for some improvement in public transport” by introducing a light rail line and extending the city's subway system.
One of the biggest criticisms is that the Olympic Village, the temporary home to 2,300 athletes, will not be a model of renewable and more efficient energy use.
In its scorecard, the World Wildlife Fund noted no solar power or water saving features were included in the village.
The scorecard also flunked organizers on beautifying urban areas.
Delays have left little time to add greenery to Athens, so organizers are installing 20,000 banners, some of them several stories high, and 12 miles of multicolored fencing to camouflage less scenic areas.
"The asphyxiating lack of green in Athens," the fund said, isn't helped by the fact that a last-minute blitz to plant trees, bushes and flowers "will be out of season and is only meant to temporarily beautify the city."
Both Greenpeace and the WWF contrasted Athens with the high environmental standards set at the Sydney Olympics.
Frederic Scheer, one of the recycling contractors at Sydney, agreed with the environmentalists' assessment about Athens, noting that Sydney appeared to be a high mark that hasn't been reached since.
"Since then it has been quite disappointing," says Scheer, the chief executive officer of NAT-UR, Inc., a company that produces biodegradable utensils and cups from corn starch.
"We were involved at the Salt Lake City Olympics because of the dedication of Coca-Cola to do something for the environment," he adds, "but even SLOC (the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee) was not really committed."
"Our involvement with Athens is nonexistent," he continues, even though biodegradable products are now price competitive with plastic ones. "We were contacted several years ago, then last year. We spent time, money and efforts in sending samples, retaining a consultant to represent us, but nothing came through." Not even an explanation.
And like the environmentalists, Scheer extends the blame beyond the Athens organizers to the International Olympic Committee.
Scheer had hoped to be part of an Olympics pillar that showed the world how to be more sustainable. But he's not sure now.
"It might be time now to ask the IOC what is their real commitment to the environment," he says. "Since Sydney 2000, which really were the greenest games, I feel that the environment is in the back seat."