Athens 2004 fails to live up to ‘green’ expectations

The environment, one of the three pillars of
Olympism since 1994, was not a big winner at the Olympics. But
Greece has arguably left a strong legacy in terms of sustainable

The physical legacy of the Olympics in Athens
includes brand new multipurpose sports facilities, transport
infrastructure (including a new airport, an underground system, a
fast ring road and gas-powered buses), the regeneration of coastal
areas and the conversion of the Olympic Village into over 2,000
modern appartments. 

It is hoped that the air quality in Athens will improve markedly
given that the improved road system will mean less slow,
pollution-generating traffic. In addition, there was no tradition
of recycling in Greece before the Games. In a bid to change that
culture, a green bin/blue bin recycling system was introduced along
with a major advertising campaign. 

The Commission’s involvement mainly came in the form of the
investigation of complaints about the Olympic Games infrastructure.
None of the projects submitted to environmental impact assessment
procedures was deemed to have had negative environmental effects.
Greece is set to benefit from a total of 25bn euros of EU
structural aid over the period 2000-06. Some of this money will
have been used in such projects as the construction of the tramway
and the metro. 

The most controversial complaint centred on the Olympic rowing
and canoeing centre at Schinias-Marathon. A Commission official
confirmed that, following the Commission’s intervention, the Greek
authorities had included Schinias-Marathon in their national list
of proposed sites of Community interest, in line with Directive
92/43/EEC. This means the project is included in the Natura 2000
ecological network, designed to ensure that the site’s wildlife
value would be protected in the future management of the

The official Athens 2004 website claims
that the benefits of the Olympics to Greece would include 65,000
new permanent jobs, 120 kilometers of new road and a $1.3 billion
(€1.22 billion ) boost in public sector revenues. In terms of the
environment, it claims that 290,000 new trees and 11 million new
shrubs would be planted and that there would be a 35 per cent
improvement in the quality of the environment. The French daily,
Liberation, says it was hard pressed to locate that many new trees
and shrubs, that they were planted at the last minute and that
Athens has done little to shake off its 'Tsimentoupoli' [concrete
jungle] tag. 

However, according to the BBC, Greenpeace,
which gave Sydney 2000 "five out of 10" on the environment, said it
"could only give one out of 10 to Athens". In a damning report
entitled 'How Green the Games', Greenpeace set out eight lessons
that Athens had failed to learn from Sydney. These included
independent auditing of all environmental information and
Environmental Guidelines that "must be clear and specific
benchmarks that are non-negotiable, measurable and backed up by

The WWF  were also highly critical.
"Unfortunately, the environment never figured as a priority in the
planning of the Athens Olympic Games. While the IOC calls the
environment its third pillar of Olympism, it has done very little
to keep this from crumbling under the weight of other priorities,"
said Demetres Karavellas, Chief Executive Officer of WWF-Greece.
"Greece must now move forward and look at what can be done to
reverse the environmental impacts the day after the

Commenting on the complaint about the Olympic rowing and
canoeing centre at Schinias-Marathon, the Chairman of the
International Olympic Committee's Sport and Environment Commission,
Pál Schmitt, said he understood the concerns of the
environmentalist groups but believed they were happy now. Schmitt,
a former Olympian himself and newly elected MEP (EPP, Hungary),
said that the seaside/harbour regeneration may not have been done
had it not been for the Olympics. Conceding that there may be
detailed aspects of environmental legacy that experts could take
issue with, he said the overall the legacy had been "positive". He
added that he intended to propose an EU environmental impact study
on major events such as the Olympics. 

Looking to the future, Commission spokesperson for Education and
Culture Frédéric Vincent said that the EU had no legal basis to be
involved in the organisational aspects of sports events and that
there were no plans to establish any measurement system to assess
how green the Games were. 

The Athens 2004 Olympics were dogged by fears,
right up to the last minute, that facilities would not be ready in
time. Some argue that rushing to complete building work meant that
the environment was not given the full attention it deserved while
others point to the fact that the new infrastructure will have
beneficial effects in terms of air pollution for example. 

The environment and sustainable development was recognised by
the Centennial Olympic Congress in Paris in 1994. Since then it has
been included in the Olympic Charter as the third pillar of
Olympism alongside sport and culture. The first Olympic Games
to be held since then were at Lillehammer which was widely regarded
as a success story in terms of the environment. Sydney was also
dubbed the "Green Games". Reaction to how 'green' the Athens Games
were has been generally more critical. 

An international symposium on greening events - local
governments implementing sustainability principles as hosts of
international events - will take place in Barcelona on 19-21
September 2004.


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