Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010 and London 2012: sustainability at the heart of Olympics planning

by Chiara Aruffo

In the last episode, we talked about the Salt Lake City 2002, Athens 2004 and Turin 2008 Olympics, the latter being considered the first real success in terms of environmental sustainability. Today we see how the following editions – Beijing 2008, Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 – have continued along this path.

Beijing 2008: human rights and environmental issues

One of the first things that comes to mind when one thinks of Beijing is the blanket of smog covering the city and the masks that everyone has been wearing well before the Covid era. The environmental issue was in this case even more important due to its potential impact on athletes’ health. In 1993, China bid to host the Olympics for the first time and the defeat in favour of Sydney caused a general discontent in the country. The two main points that played against China were human rights and environmental issues. The Beijing 2008 Organizing Committee therefore decided to focus on improving the environmental situation and raising awareness on the topic. Most of the budget was invested in infrastructure for an urban renovation project. The materials used for the Olympic buildings complied with environmental and energy-saving standards. A great effort was made to increase the quantity and quality of clean water available to the city. In addition, both within the city and in the surrounding areas, the organizing committee focused on reforestation, air quality improvement and building an adequate public sewage system.

bejing pollution
The Olymipc Stadium in Beijing hidden in a blanket of smog during construction works (credits: Ry Tweedie-Cullen, flickr/rytc).

Vancouver 2010: a post-Olympic legacy

The 2010 Winter Olympics were hosted by Vancouver (Canada), which in its bidding process promised to organize “the first sustainable Olympics” not only from an environmental point of view, but also economic and social. The four points concerning the environment were: reduction of energy consumption and pollution, protection of biodiversity, conservation of natural resources. The result was certainly positive. The Athlete Village area was awarded the Platinum level of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification and recognized as a model of sustainable urban planning. Even the heating system was powered by heat recovery from raw sewage. The roof of the Richmond Olympic Oval, which hosted the speed skating competitions, was built using wood from trees infested with pine beetles and already accounted for felling. In addition, rainwater was collected and used for flushing toilets. The Organizing Committee set up a non-profit organization to ensure a post-Olympic legacy for the local community.

The Richmond Olympic Oval (credits: Hubert Kang/The Architectural Review).

London 2012: a new standard for major events

The London 2012 Olympics were planned in collaboration with WWF and BioRegional under the motto ‘Towards a One Planet Olympics’. The organization’s Sustainability Plan for London 2012 was based on five themes: climate change, recycling, biodiversity, inclusion and healthy living. Some of these themes actually proved to be successful: for example, in terms of inclusion, the London Paralympics reached the general public for the first time. On the environmental side, similar to what happened to Sydney, criticism came from WWF and BioRegional. The two organizations claimed that many promises were not maintained, especially in terms of ecological standards and targets for renewable energy. David Stubbs, Head of Sustainability for London 2012, responded to this criticism by saying ‘to use a football analogy, we didn’t win every game, but we won the league‘. Let’s not forget the great merit of the London Games: the creation of a new international standard for major events, ISO 20121. It aims to identify and remove the negative impact of social, economic and environmental factors in the organization of major events.

The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London (credits: QEOP).

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