The reports from Sochi’s newly built hotels and Olympic Village have not painted their construction in the best light, with tales of doors that wouldn’t open, yellow drinking water, and collapsing fixtures and fittings.
Unfortunately, the situation doesn’t look any better on the environmental front. In fact the most symbolic failure of the 2014 Winter Olympics came before even a brick was laid, when the government decided to host the games inside the Sochi National Park, a region that contains the greatest species diversity of anywhere in Russia and is encompassed by a UNESCO World Heritage area.
It is also a poor decision from a tourism perspective. The planners have built infrastructure for more than 100,000 people, but the valley of the Mzyma River can accommodate no more than 30,000 people at a time. There simply aren’t enough slopes for such a massive skiing resort. This gratuitous sacrifice of nature would be comical if its implications weren’t quite as tragic.
When the planning for the games began, it was illegal to organise large scale sporting events within the national park. But by 2006 these laws were amended, along with a few others. In 2007 the Russian government abolished compulsory environmental assessment and oversight for construction projects. In December 2009, the State Duma approved changes to the Forest Code that allowed the logging of rare species of trees and shrubs, in order to speed Olympic construction. These changes to legislation are guaranteed to have a long lasting impact on our ability to protect the environment in Russia. These amendments, made for a single event, will most certainly allow the exploitation and degradation of the environment to continue entirely legally for years to come.
Following a similar comically grotesque trend, the Sochi games’ organisers failed to carry out a survey for their construction sites. Absurdly, the official reports on the areas that would become the “mountain cluster” of winter sports facilities mention that dolphins and pelicans reside there. No plans were made to relocate or mitigate the effects upon these species the report claimed were there. A lack of reliable initial surveys means we might never discover the full extent of the environmental damage.
The most environmentally damaging construction was the joint highway-railway route from the Adler district of Sochi by the coast to Krasnaya Polyana in the mountains. The River Mzymta used to be a spawning area for roughly 20% of endangered Black Sea population of Atlantic Salmon. Now, no more salmon come up the river due to pollution and destruction of spawning sites by streamlining the river bed.
More than 3,000 hectares of rare forests were logged for their large numbers of Taxus (yew) and Buxus (box) trees, and many sites where red deer and wild boar overwintered were uprooted and destroyed. Some migration routes used by bears and ibex on the Aibga Mountain Range were also destroyed – and for what? The road itself is a wasteful extravagance, which could have been easily avoided by simply repairing and widening the existing road.
Relative to previous Olympic venues, the games in Sochi were all but guaranteed to inflict greater environmental damage simply because there is so much more environment to damage compared to those events in or around major cities. That said, the Russian government has failed to meet even the most reasonable expectations. From the start of the construction planning it was clear that significant damage to the environment was unavoidable. So in 2012, the organisers agreed to support the rehabilitation works once Games were over. But the support ended by approving the programme with zero budget.
In fact, far from supporting environmental protection, Sochi 2014 seems to be actively prosecuting those who speak out in its defence. In the days immediately before the opening ceremony, the overt repression and harassment of local activists escalated. Suren Gazaryan, a member of the Environmental Watch of Northern Caucasus, was forced to flee from the country and seek political asylum in the EU. Another local activist and journalist, Evgeny Vitishko, had his probation period extended to a three year prison sentence, causing protests from Amnesty International. More than seven others have also been arrested.
The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) played a very positive role in the course of preparation for the games, carrying out regular assessments and reporting back to the Russian government. But only in a few cases did Olympic organisers take any action based on these reports and recommendations. For example, the bobsleigh, biathlon and mountain Olympic village were relocated from the originally proposed site in a very sensitive part of the national park.
In contrast, the International Olympic Committee has never seriously looked into any concerns raised by environmentalists, providing tacit backing to the organisers’ rampage through the delicate and diverse ecology of the Caucasus. In Sochi, the IOC has demonstrated that the only things that matter are image and money.