Beijing 2022, the surprisingly green Olympics

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Beijing 2022, the surprisingly green Olympics

After years of running bloated Olympic Games criticized for their environmental records, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to make sustainability a goal, using sport as a way to promote better development. Under IOC President Thomas Bach in 2014, it inaugurated Olympic Agenda 2020, a set of 40 reform principles designed to make the Olympics a “plug-and-play” event: Host cities would be chosen in part because the games already fit into their environments and would do minimal damage.

At first glance, Beijing - a city perhaps best known for its smog, not for its snow - is an unlikely showcase for this approach and for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which it was awarded Friday. In 2008, the Beijing Summer Games were a major construction project that permanently transformed the landscape. But it’s precisely that history that allows the IOC to further its green goals.

Agenda 2020’s influence on the bids considered this week at the IOC’s meetings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was unmistakable. Both Beijing and its competitor, Almaty, Kazakhstan, emphasized the minimal amount of construction they’d undertake. Beijing promised to reuse 11 of 12 venues built for 2008, including the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube swimming center, which will be used for curling. Unlike Almaty, which already had the ski slopes, Beijing will need to build them on land just outside a national park. But that’s nothing compared with the 2014 Sochi Games’ massive construction program and $51 billion budget. In contrast, Beijing 2022’s $3.1 billion budget is shockingly modest.

As important as Beijing 2022’s small construction footprint will be, the bid’s lasting impact on the people of Beijing and the surrounding region is potentially even more so. In particular, the city’s commitment to cleaning up the air in advance of the games - though it echoes similar promises from 2008 - is far more credible now. In 2008, the anti-smog provisions were focused specifically on mitigating problems in Beijing, and polluting facilities were oftentimes simply moved out of the city into surrounding regions. After the games, the smog returned with a vengeance.

That won’t be an option in 2022. First, China already has an anti-smog program under way that has nothing to do with the Olympics, and in seven years it’ll probably be producing considerably better air. Second, the skiing events will be held in the mountains of Zhangjiakou, a small town in Hebei, China’s most polluted province. Fixing the air there will require long-term regional solutions. If successful, those solutions could have a lasting, positive effect for all of north China.

Nonetheless, the burden of proof is on Beijing for 2022, and the narrow 44-40 vote is a reminder that many people are far from convinced that China can meet it. For now, Beijing stands as the torch-bearer for a new kind of Olympics.

by Adam Minter, American writer based in Asia

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