Gretchen Bleiler: Sochi Games ruined environment
Brown bears, salmon, biodiversity lost in Putin’s Olympics.
The Sochi Olympics are over, the stories told, once-in-a-lifetime memories made, dreams have come true and medals awarded. Now news from Russia is all about Ukraine. But back in Sochi out of the spotlight, what’s left is a city of empty hotel rooms, restaurants, venues and small businesses settling back into life before the Games.
But the city is not the whole story. Subtropical Sochi hosted less than a third of the Winter Games while the rest were spread through a mountainous national forest nearly 40 miles away. Even as a boastful Russian Olympic Committee claimed these would be the greenest Games, Russia pushed ahead with $50 billion in spending, tearing up 8,750 acres of old growth in the process.
And if you look at the sustainability claims made, they seem, at first glance, pretty substantial: over 1 million trees planted, rare species moved and sensitive wetlands avoided. On paper, the Sochi Games might pass for being somewhat green.
The problem is that you can’t destroy an old-growth forest ecosystem and just rebuild it elsewhere. The biodiversity that has been lost is immeasurable. Damage in the national park has spread far beyond the natural areas that were obliterated. Brown bears have left. Sochi’s largest river, the Mzymta, a valuable Black Sea salmon spawning site, has been forever changed after $9.5 billion in road and rail development, done with little regard for the environment. Games organizers released millions of trout, only to find out none had survived.
I wish the International Olympic Committee had realized the environmental challenges ahead when it awarded these Winter Games. It’s not surprising that hosting up to 100 competing countries and hundreds of thousands of spectators in an underdeveloped region could never be sustainable.
Sochi’s environment has been devastated, and as our attention shifts away, we must demand change. History can’t repeat itself. The best thing that can come out of Sochi is for bid cities and the IOC to truly consider the environmental price paid and the impact to future host cities before any sites are chosen.
I’m a two-time Olympian, but ever since I was a little girl, the Olympic dream has influenced me. It takes a village to earn a spot representing your country, and I know that every single person who helped me get to the Olympics was also touched by the dream. The web of inspiration is incredible. Because of this, I know that the core principles and spirit of what the Olympics stand for are worth protecting.
Unfortunately, Sochi will always stand as a reminder of what happens when politics rule over common sense.
Gretchen Bleiler, an Olympic and X Games medalist, is on the board of Protect Our Winters.
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