Mixed results on sustainability goals for the Rio Games

Construction of the Olympic golf course in the Marapendi nature reserve sparked outrage over the environmental impact of the Games. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Even before the start of this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro, there has been criticism of polluted waterways, shoddy construction and lack of infrastructure. But of the nine issues targeted in the Rio 2016 Sustainability Management Plan, organizers have had some success toward goals like improving environmental awareness, solid waste management and making the Games carbon-neutral. Sustainability results for these Olympic Games are decidedly mixed.

London, the fifth-richest city in the world in terms of GDP, failed to measure up to all of its environmental goals for the 2012 Olympics, so it should come as no surprise that Rio de Janeiro, in a middle-income country suffering both economic and political crises, should fall short. But Rio’s failure to provide all the cleanliness and amenities of a developed country should not detract from what it has done, including turning the attention of billions of spectators toward the realities of climate change during the opening ceremonies.

Much of the blame for the environmental issues surrounding the Olympic Games has fallen on Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, whose eight-year term started just months before Rio won the bid to be South America’s first Olympics host.

Paes’ work to promote the role that mayors and cities have to play in reducing carbon emissions as chairman of the C40 Cities network has earned him a green reputation internationally, but the citizens of Rio de Janeiro have protested his demolition of slums, failure to clean Guanabara Bay – which the city claims is technically under state jurisdiction – and building a new Olympic golf course in the middle of an environmentally protected area.

Roberto Vamos, a Brazilian sustainability consultant, took a broader view of Paes in an interview with ThinkProgress.org. “Obviously, in terms of the promises that were made for the city and Olympic legacy, the water sanitation part [of the bay cleanup]was an absolute disaster, and nothing was done. Because of that, I think the Olympic legacy really fell short in terms of what was promised,” Vamos told ThinkProgress. “In terms of the actual on the ground projects themselves, the problems that he inherited were so enormous that to say that they could have been solved in eight years is ridiculous. Many of these problems are going to be solved over decades.”

If development projects were quick and easy, they would be done already, so high expectations can share at least some of the blame that has been placed on Paes.

Controversy erupted over Paes’ decision to build a new golf course for the Olympics in the Marapendi nature reserve, which spawned the Occupy Golf movement. Opponents claimed that the decision was based on shady political ties with developers, who were granted permission to build condominiums in the area. The Rio 2016 Committee responded after a lawsuit that 80 percent of the construction had been done in an area that was already degraded due to sand extraction and concrete manufacturing, and cited surveys of increased vegetation and biodiversity post-construction. Photos of how the site looked in 2014 lend credence to the official stance, but a landscape suitable for golf is still not the same as a restored natural habitat, and local environment activists remain skeptical.

All of this comes just two years after Brazil played host to the FIFA World Cup, which was similarly plagued with failing infrastructure and did not fully achieve its environmental goals. Although the newly constructed World Cup stadiums featured solar panels and energy- and water-efficient designs, setbacks in construction of a monorail hobbled public transportation to and from the games. Concerns over money being spent without lasting social investment fueled public outcry.

Nevertheless, in terms of gaining publicity for environmental issues, Scientific American argued that “sport can influence public opinion – and even government action – around climate change and environmental sustainability in ways that science and policy debates cannot.” Sports events hold the public’s attention much better than scientists, and raising awareness and building public support are critical for building a greener future.

Despite its shortcomings, Rio 2016 did demonstrate a commitment to sustainability. Fifty percent of the carbon emissions associated with the Games (including construction and transportation), have already been offset, and the buses used for transporting the athletes and spectators run on biodiesel. The planning committee published packaging guidelines and made a big effort to keep the food served in the Olympic Village and cafeterias locally sourced, using sustainably caught fish and refusing to buy meat raised in vulnerable areas. Even the 5,130 medals earned in the Games were made from gold mined under good working conditions without mercury and recycled materials.

The mixed success in Rio begs the question of how sustainable the Olympic Games are in their current form; it’s well known that host cities usually lose money, which is especially troublesome in countries that can’t afford it, and in the inevitable crunch to meet the infrastructure needs of so many, environmental issues usually end up at the bottom of the priority list. The Atlantic examined several alternatives floated over the years that involve either creating a permanent site for the Olympics or spreading the events across countries, so no one city has to bear the burden of hosting – an unlikely shift.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee is promoting its commitment to “building a sustainable future” at the 2018 PyeongChang Games. Squeezing long-term social or environmental impacts out of a two-week event is anything but easy, so perhaps what Rio 2016 has accomplished through raising environmental awareness and minimizing its carbon footprint is about all that can be expected.

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About Author

Nikki Eller

Nikki Eller writes on environmental issues for Humanosphere, and is currently a Master of Public Health student at the University of Washington. A neuroscience major in college, she later served with the Peace Corps in Peru and worked for the UW Department of Global Health. Contact her at Nikki.humanosphere@gmail.com.