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The Greenest Games Ever? Vancouver and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

It is a once in a lifetime experience, being a spectator at the Olympic games:  a green mama spectator at the green Olympic Games. The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is being billed as the greenest games ever, and that is in the eco sense of the word. (It is also literally green as the sun shines bright and the days hover in the mid 50s F/ 10s C, winning these Games the unofficial title as the first ever Spring Olympics.)

The 2010 Winter Games has done a good job walking its green talk considering the constraints.  (READ: a large, unwieldy bureaucracy that includes a large multi-national corporation and multiple local governments) Will having had the Olympics in Vancouver leave the world a better place than if it hadn’t happened at all?  Probably not, but it will leave behind some VERY green legacies. These include a new world-class light-rail line, one of North America’s first LEED Platinum neighborhoods, and the only LEED Platinum convention centre in the world.

Any Olympic Games, however, is up against a heavy carbon footprint with the transportation of the athletes and thousands of visitors. (Travel to and from the games accounts for about 150,000 tonnes of this Games estimated 267,000 tonnes of carbon emissions).  As well, there are the ubiquitous complaints about inequitable distribution of the wealth of the games, the mountains of garbage and plastic bottles generated, and all the STUFF that is created, sponsored, and sold.

Yet, there seems little doubt that the 2010 Winter Games is the greenest Olympics of our times.

An introduction to the Olympics and its green goals

To understand a bit more about how the greening of the Olympics works, one needs to understand a bit more about how the Olympics in general work.  As best as I understand it here is a really quick and dirty outline. (Scroll to the bottom for more explanation of the terms and players.)

The IOC decides which city/region will host the Olympics.  Cities compete for this role and once the host city is determined, the IOC works with the local governments to form an organizing committee that is the non-profit corporation that actually does the work of making each game happen and puts its own flavor on that Olympics. The organizing committee for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, VANOC, created two unusual priorities for the games 1) the greening of the Games—aspiring to be a carbon neutral Games, and 2) creating “unprecedented”  First Nations, Inuit, and Métis participation in the planning and hosting of the Games.  And it has succeeded in both—more or less.

What has been done to green the Olympic Games?

VANOC’s goal was to eliminate or off-set the direct carbon costs of the game. (That means the carbon generated by the athletes getting to the games would count, but the carbon generated by the spectators would not).  VANOC is the first Olympic Organizing Committee to track its carbon emissions for both the 27 days of the Games AND the entire seven year period leading up to the games.

The Olympic Games will have a smaller carbon footprint because of the green successes above (green buildings, new transit) and due to other innovative projects such as the development of the Neighborhood Energy Utility that captures energy from waste water to heat the Olympic Village, a net zero building that produces as much energy as it uses, and a luxury rail streetcar. They have also paid attention to smaller details, such as providing free rides on the new Canada Line rail station to spectators on the day of their ticketed events and generally making it easier for visitors to use transit than drive.  Read more about the VANOC sustainability stars.

For the remaining calculated carbon use that was not eliminated, VANOC relied on offsets with the first-ever Olympic carbon offset sponsor.  VANOC also encourages travelers to the Olympics to reduce their own carbon use by taking transit instead of driving and voluntarily off-setting their own travel emissions.

On the ground

Being here, amidst the Olympic activities, it is clear that much of what VANOC set out to do has happened: the roads are not clogged (despite thousands more flooding into the small cities of Vancouver and Whistler), the trains and busses are full and running smoothly, the LEED platinum projects are beautiful and were finished on time or early, the community energy system hums along easily taking energy from what would otherwise just be waste.  Yet, there are also things that will (and do) drive environmentalists crazy. 

The most ironic of these? Metro Vancouver has had efforts underway to phase out water sold in plastic bottles, yet bottled water is everywhere at the Olympics. The city, after all, does not get to decide what is sold at the Olympic venues during the time of the Olympics.  That is VANOC. Coca-Cola, one of the official Olympic sponsors, plans on selling more than seven million beverages during the games—many of these in plastic bottles. That includes Vitamin Water and Dasani.  The water in Dasani bottles is (drumroll) filtered B.C. municipal water from a plant right outside Vancouver itself.  (For a 2,500 percent upcharge, who wouldn’t prefer to pay for the privilege of drinking it?) Read more about the bottled water issue at the Olympics.

All-in-all, I wouldn’t miss being here for the world.  It is an exciting time to be making a home in Vancouver.  The greenest games? Yes, I think this is probably true. Sustainable? Probably not for the Olympics. It is my sense that a lot of VANOC’s success in greening this Olympics was actually due to how green the city of Vancouver and the BC region already are.  This is an expressed priority for Vancouver and the region (FULL DISCLOSURE my husband works for one of these governments so I am BIASED) and it is unclear whether the IOC will take this legacy and grow it into the bureaucratic structure of the Games themselves.  I hope they will.  And judging by the failed Chicago bid, more and more cities are going to force them to consider it.

More about the players

The International Oly
mpic Committee (IOC)
is THE corporation behind the Olympics.  They are the ones that determine which city hosts the Olympics and are responsible for pulling-off the games themselves. The IOC also makes and distributes the money generated directly from the Olympics. More on the ample budget of the IOC, questions of fairness, and what they do with the money.

Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games or VANOC is the non-profit that is formed to actually do the planning, organizing, financing, and staging of the games.  Each Olympics a new organization is formed to make the event happen.  VANOC is led by a representative of the Canadian Olympic Committee, part of the IOC. The Directors consist of 20 members, including 7 chosen by the Canadian Olympic Committee and 11 representing the different governmental bodies involved (Canada, BC, Vancouver, Whistler, and First Nations). 

VANOC raises its money from the private sector such as sponsorships, ticket sales, and merchandising. VANOC’s budget for the 2010 Olympics was about CAN $1.76 billion with the Canadian government and B.C. government spending about another CAN $580 on venue construction and upgrades.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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