Speeding Towards Environmental Disaster in the 2014 Winter Olympics

Sochi leaves behind a legacy of illegal dumping, trashed wetlands, and amended environmental laws

No one wants to be a buzz kill when it comes to the Olympics. The snowboard half-pipe makes our jaws drop, the downhill skiers defy gravity at every turn, the ice dancers are oddly fascinating, and don’t get me started on the bobsled.

Sochi Olympic FlamePhoto courtesy Russian Presidential Press and Information OfficeEnvironmental wrongs have been piling up at Sochi.

That being said, not everything about the Winter Olympics is inspired or inspiring, particularly this year. Ever since 2007, when Sochi received the nod of approval in from the International Olympic Committee to host the 2014 Games, environmentalists have warned of the inevitable ecological destruction that would follow. These warnings have gone largely unheard, and the destruction may actually be worse than anyone anticipated.

So, what has environmentalists so flustered?

To begin with, Sochi was a bad choice to host the Olympics. The nearby mountains slated for skiing are part of Sochi National Park, a specially protected area with the highest species diversity of any region in Russia, and home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite the unfortunate choice of location, environmental groups were hopeful that steps would be taken to minimize damage, and participated in monthly meetings aimed at improving environmental components of Olympic planning and construction processes. It quickly became apparent, however, that in the rush of construction efforts, their concerns and suggestions were not being implemented by Olympic organizers, and in 2010, WWF and Greenpeace withdrew from the Sochi environmental consultation process.

And the environmental wrongs have continued to pile up. Large illegal waste dumps have cropped up around the region, including within Sochi National Park. More than 3,000 hectares of forest have been logged, including regions with rare plant species. Red deer and wild boar habitat have been destroyed, and large mammal migration routes have been interrupted. Large swaths of previously protected wetlands now lay underneath the Olympic Village.

“The most long-lasting effect will be from the damage to the Mzymta River,” says Igor Chestin, CEO of World Wildlife Russia. “[The damage] was done mostly by construction of the combined railway and highway, but also when people were building on the banks. They were streamlining the riverbed, making it more like a ditch than a real wild river…thus not allowing the natural flooding and meandering of the river.” Before construction began, the Mzymta was a spawning site for roughly 20 percent of the Black Sea Salmon population.

According to Chestin, Russia used to have environmental laws preventing just this type of destruction, but environmental laws can be pesky, and Putin’s government amended several laws to make way for Olympic glory: In 2006, the Russia government amended a specific ban on holding large sporting events in National Parks, in 2007 it eliminated compulsory environmental assessment for construction projects, and in 2009 the legislature amended the Forest Code. These changes have broad and lasting effects not only in Sochi, but throughout the country.

In all fairness, Sochi is not the first Olympics to wreak havoc on local ecosystems, even if its environmental footprint is the largest in recent history. For the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, the federal government allowed development on environmentally sensitive federal lands and suspended Endangered Species Act protections for an endangered mustard plant species. And because Winter Olympics tend to be hosted in relatively remote regions, they are generally accompanied by more construction and development than the Summer Olympics, which are often hosted in large cities (think Los Angeles, Beijing and London). That being said, until Sochi, the general trend for both summer and winter Olympic events had been towards mitigation of environmental impacts.

Unfortunately, Russia’s post-Olympics picture in Sochi also looks pretty bleak. In 2012, a working group composed of representatives from the United Nations Environment Program and Russian NGOs developed an environmental remediation plan for implementation after the Olympics. “We expected that the government would actually allocate this money for the period after the Olympics,” says Chestin. “[Instead,] the government said, okay we approve this program, we like the program, however we aren’t going to give any funding for that.”

If we don’t want to do away with the Olympics, but we don’t want to continue destroying pristine mountain habitat, what option are we left with ? Well, Chestin, for one, believes we should hold the Olympics in the same place every four years: “My personal view is that the Olympics should stop moving. That would allow for much higher standards.”

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