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Green games?

August 2004

How sustainable are the Athens Olympics?

Green games

Athens is one of the busiest cities in the world. It is a maze of narrow streets and windy roads and the air is thick with smog and dust. Over 4 million people are crammed into a space no bigger than 100 square miles and this figure is about to rocket skywards, as Greece’s capital will be transformed into a heaving Olympic host city. Such a huge event will affect the locals significantly, but how equipped are the Greeks to cope with such a social, economic and environmental shift?


Gold medal for sustainability?

In 2001, Greece was able to cope with 14 million tourists that visited, which was 30% more than the population. However will they be able to cope with the millions of visitors that will flood into Athens for the Greek Olympics? Organisations involved in the Olympics had many plans to improve public facilities in and around Athens to cope with the demands of the residents, tourists and athletes to ensure things run smoothly with minimal disruption to the local area and environment. For example:

  • Tourists are being accommodated in hotels, cruise ships and private homes
  • Roads and Olympic village have disabled access
  • Approx 60,000 volunteers are said to be participating
  • An increase in public services
  • Better parking facilities
  • Ultra modern traffic management centers
  • A 1240km square Olympic village for athletes

Is Athens Losing Control of Olympic Spending?

In the build up to the Olympics there was speculation that the cost of hosting them may far exceed previous estimates. The Greek government recently increased the budget for the games from €2.5billion to €4.6billion (£1.7billion–£3.1billion), demonstrating that it is prepared to spend a huge sum of money to raise Greece’s profile on the world stage and to satisfy the requirements of the International Olympic Committee.

A skeptical observer might draw parallels with the recent All Africa Games held in Nigeria. The Nigerian government was accused by the World Bank of spending an "exorbitant amount of money which should be used to address massive poverty and other social crises in the country”. The Nigerian government responded by saying that the games brought "a stronger sense of unity" to the country.

The Greek government, however, is less interested in a sense of unity than it is in bringing economic, social and infrastructure benefits to the capital and the country. Although previous Olympics have achieved those aims – for example the games in Barcelona, which provided an enormous boost to the country – it doesn’t appear that Greece will be so lucky. Figures show that the country’s economic deficit has risen from just 1.4 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2002 to 4.6 per cent in 2004, greatly exceeding both Greece’s original estimate of 0.9 per cent of GDP and its legal limits under the European Union stability pact.


Impact of the Athens Games on Greece's GDP

Year

Impact on GDP (% points)

2001

0.77

2002

1.00

2003

1.15

2004

1.20

2005

0.01

2006

0.24

2007

0.31

2008

0.40

2009

0.40

2010

0.42

Source:

Centre of Planning and Econonmic Research

However, the Centre of Planning and Economic Research has estimated that the Olympics will contribute nearly six percentage points to the country’s GDP between 2000 and 2010. In addition, Lloyd Barton, author of a recent EU report, said that Athens will "benefit from added investment". He also said that the games may "prove to be a draw for future investors". On a more domestic level, he added that the extensive media exposure may "enhance the reputation of the city as an attractive business centre", further enhancing its business and tourist appeal.

So, the outcome of the row between the government and its critics will clearly have significant ramifications for Greece’s population and economy. And as for the games’ overall success, only time will tell.


Stadia: Green or Mean?

Existing football stadiums and sports complexes are being used as the venues, but new stadia have been built to cater for the needs of the Games. Most notable is the ‘new’ Olympic Stadium which has been modernised from the old 74,767 capacity seater stadium ready to welcome the world. There was some concern about whether it would be finished on time, but to the relief of the IAAF it has. The new buildings are environmentally friendly and provide disabled access. Some say they are tourist attractions in themselves and are not ‘eyesores’.

Some of the new facilities have been built on Brownfield sites and have regenerated the area of Marousi - it is now booming with tourists and the local economy is growing rapidly. However, many Greenfield sites and open land has been developed to the detriment of the environment.

The Mayor of Athens appears delighted that the Games has come to the city. She says: “This will put Athens back onto the map and will improve life for Grecians the world over.” However a local resident who lives near the stadium strongly disagrees with the Mayor, “The games are detrimental to Athens and to Greece as there has been a loss of parks and beaches, and an increase in people will increase the pollution. The environment has already been destroyed and when the games are over we are going to be left to foot the bill.”

The new stadia are likely to enhance the potential of future Grecian generations, providing new sporting venues to build on the success of the Greek football team in Euro 2004 and challenge for major honours in the years to come.


Climate may forecast problems?

Although the Greek summer weather seems to be ideal for tourists, forecasted heat waves may prove to be a problem for the athletes. The temperature for the duration of the Olympics is predicted to range between 22 and 32 degrees Celsius, with average rainfall of only 4.6mm – these are extremely hot and dry conditions, plus, there is the possibility of heat waves brought along by the strong, northerly winds known as “meltemi”.

But this is to be expected. Greece has a Mediterranean climate, characterized by hot, dry summers and mild wet winters. Athens in particular, sheltered by mountains and its high pollution levels, has a harsher climate than most other cities in the region. This contributes to Athens as one of the most polluted cities in the world and is prone to toxic, “low lying” ozone, which can result in respiratory problems.

"I've been there when it's not breathable” Jean-Michael Cousteau is known to have said of Athens.

On a positive note, conditions are going to be a good training ground for the 2008 Beijing Games, where the climatic conditions will be similar if not significantly harsher. “Many people doubt the athletes will be able to stand the heat of the city at that time,” the China Daily has said about Beijing. After Athens and Beijing, the notoriously variable climate of London with its cool to mild weather conditions could be a welcome relief to athletes and a much needed positive in London’s favour in the bid to host the 2012 games.


Will Athens Fail the Waste, Water and Energy Challenge?

How exactly did the Organising Committee plan to ensure effectively manage waste, water and energy so there is a minimal impact on the environment?

One of their main aims is to keep waste to a minimum and encourage recycling. During the preparation period they have worked to achieve the best performance regarding waste management and have applied recycling practices in ATHENS 2004 headquarters throughout the preparation period. 108 tonnes of paper from the ATHENS 2004 headquarters have been recycled, saving 1,836 trees; the amount of water needed for paper pulp treatment has been reduced by 3,402,000 litres, and cut energy consumption by 442,800 kW. Some 27,217 cubic meters of landfill space have been saved. However their promise of recycling practices during the games began and finished with the installment of recycle bins, a huge disappointment.

Few measures have been taken to ensure that energy use will be sustainable. In the Olympic Village, bioclimatic architecture (stressing the need for correct orientation, good natural ventilation and circulation of natural air) has been used. This lowers energy consumption but only by a small amount. Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy have not been considered. In a country where this energy source is in abundance, it has not has not been harnessed to its full potential.

Athens has also neglected the matter of a sustainable water supply. They have not delivered on the proposals and promises for the reduction of water demand or water saving. Newly planted plants will be irrigated with valuable drinking water for as long as they survive.


A 'Green' Greek Tragedy?

How does Athens compare to the Sydney Olympics, dubbed the “green games”? Will there be use of photovoltaic solar energy cells? Or will Athens use non-renewable electricity?

In a country where the sun shines 70% of the time and nearly every home operates on solar power, why are ATHOC (the Athens Organising Committee) not using it in the Olympic village?

Is Athens itself able to cope with the sheer number of tourists? And if so is the infrastructure adequate and in accordance to pollution levels? Today the level of the poisonous gas Carbon Monoxide cannot exceed 10mgr per metre cubed, will this value increase during the Olympics and what effect would this have on the environment? Will the proposed planting of 290 000 trees and millions of other plants off-set increases in carbon emissions?

According to Transport Minister Michalis Liapis, Athens is “ready for everything” he believes “the success of the Games will depend, in part, on the successful operation and coordination of mass transport”. To ensure this, the ATHOC have extended the metro lines, bus times and priority traffic lanes for accredited parties (officials, journalists and of course athletes) to bypass the jams. They have also introduced tram lines and suburban railways that will remain after the games for the use of native Athenians.

By introducing and developing the public transport of the city it is hoped that pollution will be controlled during and after the games.

A scheme to plant thousands of trees has fallen behind schedule.

So will the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 be hailed as a ‘green games?

In the opinion of local Greenpeace director Nikos Haralambidis, “They (ATHOC) had promised a lot of things in their bid in 1997 and has delivered almost nothing. Athens would not get a single mark were it not for some improvement in public transport” he went on to say, “Instead of moving forward even just a little bit, Athens has actually gone back, way back as far as their environmental record is concerned - it is pretty miserable.”


All work; no play?

Throughout August, the hotels in Athens will be under enormous strain. Wealthy tourists will be paying large amounts of money for comfortable rooms to escape busy day time frenzy but only if there are workers to provide the 5 star service for them. Therefore, it is understandable that Greece is particularly worried about the threat of strike action by hotel workers.

Workers say that they “don’t care” if the likes of Europe’s royalty are left without the luxurious treatment they are accustomed to and that is “not their problem” if the rooms are not acceptable for customers. Workers believe that their current wage of £330 a month is insufficient and that hotel owners “want everything their own way”. Olympic plans will be thrown into chaos if hotel workers are unable to resolve these problems over pay and they are not alone: transport workers and builders of the Olympic stadium itself have also threatened to walk out over low pay and dangerous working conditions. The original host of the Olympic Games has now got the highest number of construction worker deaths in the history of hosting the event. As the Olympic excitement rises, morale on the ground is fading.

To many observers, the Athens Olympics may seem a glamorous and prestigious affair but to the people that live there it can be far from ideal. Increased demand for mass tourism and a hectic schedule had led many workers to review their treatment by employers. Many have discovered that their work has been trivialised in the whole scheme of the event and have threatened to walk out. So can Athens continue as a successful host nation without the “invisibles” that make the Games possible?


Look out London: is transport key?

How the Greeks turn the crowded, congested city of Athens into one that can provide good, clean, effective and rapid transport for the Games is what should be a particular interest to Lord Coe and his team of London 2012 Olympic bidders.

When the Olympic Committee accepted London as an official candidate in May earlier this year, one area they especially highlighted for improvement was basic transport. London is a city famed for traffic and congestion, resulting in Mayor Ken Livingstone introducing the unpopular congestion charge, to combat the large number of motorists entering the capital.

It will take more then that, however to win over Jacque Rogge’s Olympic committee. The London bid should maybe look to Athens this summer for guidance on this issue.

The Greek city has a population of just over 4million. Its rapid growth after World War II turned it into a city buzzing with traffic, not unlike our own capital. As a consequence, Athens is generally accepted as one of the most polluted cities on the planet, not helped by the hot climatic conditions (temperatures averaging 32 degrees Celsius in summer). The Olympics this summer has looked to change this through implementing measures that will hopefully provide effective transport, both for the Games and for the Athens population in years to come.

London might note how metro rail lines have been extended to poorer districts of the city, thus improving both transport and opportunities for industry to come to the area, increasing prosperity. Such a measure could be used for the deprived areas of London.

The 2012 bidders appear to have something over Athens in a rail link to a major international airport – Heathrow, as well as to the whole of Europe via Euro-Star.

“This could be London’s ace in the hole”, consultant Hugh Sumner believes:

“We'll be operating an Olympic shuttle service, really big trains with 12 cars, firing off into King's Cross with a journey time of only seven minutes”.

"They will also go to Ebsfleet in Kent in only 10 minutes, where there will be a huge car park."

But if Coe and his team are to be successful they will have to do more as Athens have, improving bus lanes, possibly implementing a tram system. Athens’s new trams cover 16 miles and provide easy access to the city centre. This, organizers hope, combined with a massive extension and improvement of the railways to the northern and southern suburbs will provide the answer to years of congestion.

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