Ordinarily, I look forward to the Winter Olympics. I find it thrilling to watch some of the world’s greatest athletes perform on ski slopes and skating rinks in gorgeous mountain settings. But I don’t think I will be able to enjoy the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Planned for Russia’s Black Sea resort town of Sochi and the nearby Caucasus Mountains, the Games are shaping up to be an environmental disaster.
At stake in the 2014 Games is the Western Caucasus World Historic Site. This Site “is the only large mountain area in Europe that hasn’t experienced significant human impact,” according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is a place where endangered, rare, endemic and relic animal and plant species are concentrated. The Site includes four-fifths of the ecosystems of the Caucasus, which is a world center for plant diversity.
Contained in the Western Caucasus World Heritage Site are the Caucasus Nature Reserve, home to one of the few remaining herds of bison living in natural conditions, and the 2,000 square kilometer Sochi National Park.
It is in this area that the 2014 Winter Olympics are to be held.
Environmentalists are angry that this pristine environment of global importance is being sacrificed to humans’ desire for a new venue for the winter Games. The massive destruction of land and habitat that is going into creating the Olympic site will cause incalculable damage to the region’s biodiversity, says Dmitri Kapsov of Environmental Watch of the Northern Caucasus. Land deals are shrouded in mystery, permits are questionable, and environmental impact studies are absent or fixed, Kapsov told National Public Radio.
To accommodate the Olympic Games in such an undisturbed environment, Russia must double power capacity in the area and build new water and gas lines. New roads, a new airport terminal, and a very expensive 30-mile railroad from the city of Sochi to a new ski resort are all part of the plan. Even a new port must be constructed at Sochi to bring in needed building materials.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) acknowledged, on a recent visit to the site, that never in the history of the Olympic Games has the staging of the Games been so difficult as at Sochi.
Environmentalists charge that Gazprom, a Russian company contracted to build the site, is flagrantly ignoring environmental laws and regulations. For example, the company illegally built a road through a protected floodplain, resulting in landslides. And activists discovered an illegal quarry near the nature reserve, with gravel that had been extracted from a protected river. The scale of the extraction changed the river’s course, activists report, causing a major flood. There have been many, many more violations, environmentalists say. They have filed lawsuits and complained to relevant governmental agencies. But the government has largely turned a deaf ear.
Even if the Russian government and its contractors were conscientiously doing all they could to minimize the damage to the environment (as they claim they are doing), I would still be angry. Even though the Olympics are a wonderful occasion to celebrate human talent and achievement, I don’t think the 2014 Games are worth the massive destruction of an area so beautiful, so undisturbed, so full of animal and plant diversity that it has been given a global designation.
But as I think about it, I realize that the Olympics always involve quite a bit of environmental damage. Such damage is inevitable when host countries must prepare for an onslaught of many thousands, and put in place the infrastructure to house, feed, and entertain them.
So I ask, isn’t it time to start thinking of the planet? With wild places rapidly disappearing and global warming threatening the well-being of many species, isn’t it time to stop ploughing up unspoiled places for our various human events?
So I offer an alternative idea to the International Olympic Committee: Forget about your process of choosing a different country to host the Games every two years. Instead, go back to the cities that have already hosted and who want to host again. They have already created competition venues, athlete housing, and all the trimmings. Sure, these host cities may need to do some updating of their facilities, and that will have some environmental impact. But it will be nothing compared to imposing our human activities on locations that are unspoiled.
And for God’s sake, let’s keep our human activities out of some of the last truly unspoiled places on the planet.