VANCOUVER, Canada — Once upon a time it took a village to stage the Winter Olympics. The Winter Games were actually preferred by many insiders who experienced both Olympics, providing a delightful contrast to the bigger, flashier, celebrity-saturated Summer Games that were most always held in the world’s glamour capitals.
The Winter Games were smaller, cozier, with a pleasing intimacy. They had this feeling or at least an illusion of democracy. When everybody is bulked up by parkas, ski pants and big boots, when everybody’s face is buried in scarves and a hood, well, it serves as a great equalizer.
But villages can no longer handle the less charming aspects of the Winter Games, most notably the significant environmental impact. While host cities were rewarded with valuable infrastructure — Lillehammer got a highway to Oslo, Nagano high-speed rail to Tokyo — they were also wasteful and wantonly destructive. Hosts were required to build news stadiums and ice rinks that had little post-Olympic utility. And worse, to cut away huge swaths of forests for ski jumps and luge and bobsled runs that would seldom be used again.
In this increasingly Green era, that has ceased to be an acceptable tradeoff just to put a Lillehammer or an Albertville on the world map. So the last three Olympics have all been held in major cities — Salt Lake City, Turin and now Vancouver — that were anxious to boost their international profile, but already boasted a number of facilities in place to host the events.
Pre-existing suddenly trumps new construction, with the added bonus that it eliminates those nagging “will it be ready” worries that haunt so many Games. Vancouver is holding Opening and Closing Ceremonies in its Canadian Football League stadium. Hockey will be staged in its NHL rink, ignoring the fact that the ice doesn’t meet the standards for what has traditionally been the larger, Olympic-sized rink. The two massive Olympic media centers — for broadcast and print — will be integrated into the convention center that will be a centerpiece for the rejuvenated harbor area.
Gold, silver and bronze are still the colors that trump all, but green is the next most ballyhooed color — and one that has clearly moved far beyond the lip-service stage. Folks inside and outside Vancouver’s Olympic organization are monitoring the carbon footprint of the Games. (Not very long ago an Olympic official would have been unable to use that term in a coherent sentence.)
Recently, when there were concerns about the impact of trucks and helicopters required — because of a long stretch of warm weather — to carry snow to barren ski slopes, VANOC, the local organizers were ready with facts and figures on carbon emissions. They insist that the snow emergency will boost the carbon footprint by less than 1 percent and that they will still meet all their environmental goals.
They claim the Games will have been responsible for 118,000 tons of carbon emissions in the entire seven years since Vancouver was awarded the Winter Olympics, compared with 248,000 tons at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and an estimated 160,00 tons at the 2006 Turin Games — and those amounts were just for 17 days of the Games.
Organizers insist that Vancouver is still on track to meet its goal of a carbon-neutral Olympics — despite all the emissions from construction, transportation and snow emergencies — as a result of investment that has been channeled into clean-energy production. That plan is one of the principal reasons Vancouver landed the Games in the first place, far more important than the concern that February weather in the city and on the surrounding mountains is often less than ideal for all the competition. (And 2010 appears to be one of those “oftens.”)
No doubt there will be some quibbling or even some quarreling at Games’ end about the bottom line numbers. But there is little doubt that a quantum shift is in the Olympic air. And that the Olympics is finally beginning to find attractive ways to blend green with its traditional and revered colors of gold, silver and bronze.