Sochi 2014: Why The Sustainability Record Matters

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve been overall enthralled by the athletes’ abilities and the venues’ beauty at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  Regretfully, the splendor has made me forget about the toll of the games on the surrounding environment.  In my mind, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) most likely has lofty goals concerning international cooperation, human rights, and, of course, sustainability.  I imagined that the organization worked hard to promote these values.  Unfortunately, I was dismayed to learn that this last pillar – sustainability – has been all but ignored during the Russian games.

When Russia originally made a bid for the Olympics seven years ago, President Vladmir Putin promised a list of environmentally friendly measures: zero waste, heavy investment in alternative energy, restoration of endangered species to the surrounding areas, and the first carbon neutral Games in history (1).  However, none of these targets have been realized and some have even worsened.  For instance, the environmental group, Environmental Watch of the North Caucus (EWNC), has charged that construction in Sochi has severely damaged the surrounding lands (2).  EWNC has also accused Russia of illegal dumping, blocking brown bear migration routes, and limiting access to drinking water for native residents (1).

What was Russia’s response to these accusations?

Instead of addressing the problems, the government chose to suppress the faultfinders.  Environmental activists, such as Yevgeny Vitishko (a member of EWNC), were arrested for criticizing the ecological impact of the Winter Olympics.  Vitishko was taken into custody right before giving an environmental report on Sochi and was sentenced to three years in prison (2).  Another EWNC member, Suren Gazaryan, is now living in exile in Estonia after releasing a statement on ecosystem loss and hazardous conditions present in Sochi due to poor and rushed construction (1).  His statements have been supported by other academics.  Natalia Prudnikova of Altai State University backed Gazaryan, noting that there was a “serious threat of destruction of the most valuable and natural complexes” of the Caucasian reserve (3).  She explained that any clearing of trees for downhill ski or snowboarding would damage the unique biodiversity and habitats of the Western Caucasus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (4).

Of course, I understand that the Olympics hold mostly entertainment and monetary value.  So why should the IOC even care about how the Games are conducted?  Why does the construction (and destruction) matter?  Why should Russia put the environment first?

My answers are honor and precedent.

For Russians, Sochi is a source of pride.  Being chosen as an Olympic venue, a stage for the entire world to watch, instantly grants the nation renown.  Already mired in controversy over human rights issues, Russia should attempt to uphold its reputation by ascertaining that its Olympics has a clean record all around.  Unfortunately, it seems that the government has already lost favor with some members of the IOC.  Former IOC member, Els van Breda Vriesman, has been outspoken over the fact that she (and other committee members) would not cast their votes for Sochi today, predominantly due to the environmental devastation that has occurred there (5).

It is also important for each Olympics Games to be an exemplar model for what will come four years down the road.  If construction at Sochi had not disturbed surrounding ecosystems and the planning committee had implemented greener policies, future Olympics may be planned in the same way.  Admittedly, Russia’s initial promises were impressive and have already inspired future countries to include similar goals in their bids for upcoming Olympic Games.  Already, South Korea has promised to invest in technologies such as rain and wastewater recycling and renewable energy sources for a carbon neutral 2018 Winter Olympics (1).  Hopefully, they will follow through.

Finally, IOC turning a blind eye to Russia’s lack of responsibility is shameful.  IOC has avoided directly addressing sustainably problems because it asserted “environmental complaints put forward by NGOs needed to be considered against [Russia’s] local context” (5).  However, it is in the Olympic Charter to uphold sustainability values.  In 1994, IOC adopted the environment as its “third dimension of Olympianism” (6).  It is unfortunate that only a decade later, the same organization has allowed the haste of production and presentation to overcome accountability and quality.  While the Olympic Games are about the sports, they are also about the principles we value.  We applaud the hard work and dedication of athletes, so the Olympic organizers should practice the same in adhering to their own tenants.  Like the competitors, every Olympics is another chance for IOC to ostentatiously show off what means the most to them.  As Dr. Allen Hershkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council cites, only one-tenth of the populations pays attention to science.  Two-thirds watch the Olympics (1).  As far as Sochi 2014 goes, a green message was not delivered.




    I agree that giant productions like the Olympics need to be setting a better example for the public. The Olympics and other big events have everyone’s attention, and therefore have a great opportunity to clearly portray their values and priorities for society to see. If an Olympic games were to establish themselves as a green event, such as South Korea has said they would, the following Olympic games would most likely be pressured to follow the trend and be a green event as well. Productions such as these have a massive budget and I don’t think there is any reason why they shouldn’t be paying attention to sustainability and their impact on the environment.

  2. Caroline Schechinger

    Mona, I think what’s really interesting about your post is that you call attention to something that the media has essentially ignored with regard to the inadequacies associated with Sochi. The media has been quick to point out the so-called “Sochi strays”–the stray dogs wandering into the opening ceremony and various competitions–and later quick to applaud the donors who saved these pups from Putin’s euthanasia needle. Similarly, I don’t know if you saw the picture of the twin toilets that went viral that has been used as a token symbol of ludicrousness surrounding Sochi’s political framework. (Apparently, Russians have joked that these toilets were meant for a “tandem,” the term describing the duo of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.)

    Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is that the media discounts environmental concerns you very thoroughly point out in favor of puppies and toilets, to put it somewhat simply and flippantly. I wonder if there would have been more pressure on Russia and on the IOC to monitor Sochi’s environmental impact if there were both more media attention and worldwide public salience. That being said, I also want to throw in some logistical reality into the environmental impact question. I completely agree with you that Russia’s illegal dumping and failure to adhere to carbon neutral promises are inexcusable, and the IOC should have done more to sanction that. As far as safeguarding biodiversity of the Western Caucasus, however, can we really have expected Sochi to do this while building multimillion dollar stadiums accommodating millions of people? If we want to continue to hold the Olympic Games for their indispensable cross-cultural value and tones of national pride, there will be some tradeoffs no matter what. I think the better question, then, is where and how we can build such a stadium, for example, to minimize environmental impact.

    (The twin toilet picture for anyone’s curiosity:–spt.html)


    Mona, I really enjoyed this piece. I like how you point to the importance of the Olympics and its power to make statements. It is a shame the IOC discredited the environmental complaints.
    I like the idea of precedence and setting an example for future Olympics. As we have seen in the past, each Olympics is a door with which nations get to show off and influence future decisions. Notably, the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin was the most publicized event in history at the time in an attempt to shed a different light on the Nazi regime. In fact, the Olympic torch race, which has been a tradition ever since, was first introduced by the Germans.

    To Caroline’s point, I too wonder what amount of media pressure would have forced Russia to follow up with environmental concerns. During the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, air pollution was a major environmental concern and I would argue perhaps more so than illegal dumping and brown bear migration routes given ominous smogs physical proximity, and the number of humans it contacts and affects. In 2008, the IOC praised China for doing everything in its power to clean the air before the summer olympics. But were there long term changes?

    There are two sides to this coin: immediate environmental impacts due to construction etc. and long term problems that necessitate policy reform or introduction. I believe Caroline is asking the right questions for the former.

    In reading your article and more about the Beijing Olympics, I can’t help think about the superficiality of some Olympic claims. I am happy with any environmental victory, but while Beijing air pollution was reduced for the summer of 2008, air quality was probably reverted back to its high standard levels soon after the end of the Olympics.

    Environmental issues can certainly gain traction through media publicity at the Olympics, but to what extent does the Olympics really set the example for individuals decisions and policy formation for long term problems rather than future claims only specific to that Olympics? What can the Olympics/ IOC do to influence the future for the environment?

  4. Patrick Hunnicutt

    Mona, I really enjoyed the agency you recognize in and award to the Olympics throughout this piece; I think that most spectators (myself, admittedly) tend to ignore the political importance of global sporting events. Part of the reason I think that the media turned a blind eye to the inadequacies of Sochi–as Caroline has pointed out–is that, the actual events were preceded by negative expectations. (Here, I am thinking of a news report I heard on NPR claiming that the excitement at Sochi was lacking.)This, of course, is no excuse or justification for grievous environmental shortcomings. Unfortunately, there appears to be no international body (save the media, which proved to be ineffective in Sochi) capable of pressuring host countries to hold more environmentally friendly games.

    However, perhaps I could cast a little bit more light onto the reason why the media seemed so ineffective. For this, I’ll have to employ a bit of extrapolation (so take everything I say with a grain of salt). Sanjeev Khagram, in his book Dams and Development (which, sidenote, is a fantastic piece that chronicles the story of global mega dams), claims that states that enjoy a higher degree of democracy and a greater presence of civil society are more aptly suited to generate extensive social, political and environmental reform. (Of course, Khagram applies this theory to dams. Again, I’m extrapolating.) Maybe an application of this to the Sochi games–and by extent, Russia–explains the lack of any environmental consideration and reform. A tangible example of this could be the man who was arrested by voicing his concerns over the games’ sustainability.


    International events are a good platform to advocate and practice sustainable initiatives. The olympics have an enourmous attendance and a large audience. This means a difference can be made through energy efficient facilities and also advertising the importance of such initiatives to other countries

Leave a Reply