The environmental disaster of Albertville 1992 and the green example of Lillehammer 1994

by Chiara Aruffo

The concept of sustainability has become increasingly important over the years, also in sport. This has not always been the case and there has been a good deal of criticism regarding the organisation of major sporting events. In the next few weeks, we will analyse how the IOC has gone from immobility to the inclusion of sustainability as one of the fundamental pillars of the Olympic Agenda 2020, ratified in 2014. 

Michel Barnier (left) at the Albertville Games. Credits: Getty Images.

To start talking about sustainability in relation to the Olympic Games, it is necessary first of all to take a step back in time. More precisely, to 1992, when the Winter Olympic Games took place in Albertville (France). Although the IOC has repeatedly called them “the perfect Games without any flaws“, many objections are raised about the environmental footprint, for example with regard to the deforestation that took place to build the ski jump and the ammonia used to refrigerate the bobsleigh run. For the record, the organising committee in the person of Michel Barnier (the current Brexit negotiator!) had suggested introducing a compulsory environmental impact assessment before the Games, a proposal not taken up by the IOC at the time. Barnier therefore decided to proceed with such an assessment independently. Curiously enough, in the same year (1992), IOC delegates at the Earth Summit conference in Rio de Janeiro presented the environmental guidelines for the selection of host cities and declared that the environment would be one of the topics addressed at the Olympic Congress scheduled two years later in Paris.

The bobsleigh run in La Plagne, built for the Albertville Games in 1992. Credits: lenouvelliste.ch

However, the Olympic Games in Lillehammer (Norway) were scheduled to take place before the congress, therefore it was again up to the local organising committee to ensure that the environment is respected. The Norwegian government, led by Prime Minister Brundtland (head of the World Commission on Environment and Development), provided – quite drastically – a great deal of help in this regard. It promised the organisers to support the bid only in the case of a project with such high standards to be considered an example of environmental respect in the organisation of mega-events. Expectations were met as mainly natural materials were used and the installations blended in well with the environment. The Olympic Games in Lillehammer were therefore considered a success from an environmental point of view, so much that the organising committee was the recipient of the UNEP Global 500 Award. The credit for this success is to be found in the efforts of the local organising committee rather than in an intervention by the IOC, which once again had no active role. 

The Ski Jumping Arena built for Lillehammer Games in 1994. Credits: Stepniak, Shuttershock.

We have to wait until the 12th Olympic Congress held in Paris in 1994 after the Winter Games to hear from the IOC. Environment is one of the main themes together with sport and culture, as promised at the Earth Summit in 1992. The first guidelines for the candidatures of the host cities were drawn up and it was proposed to set up an Environmental Commission within the IOC to oversee environmental standards in all major competitions. In addition, it is recommended to introduce the need to respect the environment as one of the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter. This is considered by many to be the IOC’s first draft environmental policy. 

In the next episode, we will explore the first concrete steps of IOC towards sustainability in the two-year period 1996-1997.

References:

IOC (2005) Sustainable development of the Olympic Games. Olympic Review.

IOC (2014) Factsheet, the environment and sustainable development.

Langenbach, B. and Krieger, J. (2017) Emergence of the environment policy of the International Olympic Committee: A historical analysis. Journal of Qualitative Research in Sports Studies, 11, 1, 15-32.

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