The Olympic Mistake 

Bringing the World Together... to Pollute

Somewhat predictably, I have been boycotting the Olympics (at the time of this writing, there’s still a week to go). This is made less challenging by the fact that I have no television, and to watch the Olympics I would have to head over to a friend’s house or hang out in the corner deli. But, nope, I’ve just been ignoring the whole damn thing. (Despite a friend’s plea to behold the miracle, I’m told, that is Michael Phelps.)

I used to see the Olympic Games as a force for good — a vehicle for communication, tolerance and education about other places and peoples. I would even get a little teary during the opening ceremonies, as tiny little Olympic teams from tiny little countries (Suriname!) would march in, all three of them, with enormous smiles across their faces. No longer. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) has proven itself to be corrupt and self-serving, and their selection of Beijing for this summer’s games, though cloaked in do-gooder-speak, seemed more like capitulation to an unstoppable juggernaut than a measured decision.

Of course, a lot of ink has been spilled discussing the environmental impact of China’s ascendance in the fierce arena of globalized capitalism, and their corresponding near-total disregard for its impact on the planet. On the other side, greed for cheap products (on the part of consumers) and maximum profit (on the part of producers) has meant Americans and others have willfully ignored the true cost, in jobs, human rights and above all environmental degradation, of all the crap we feel we just have to have (made in China) to survive.

So, you may ask, why take it out on the Olympics? Well, as far as things environmental go, time is running out to make things right, and rewarding China for their part in the problem sets a very troubling precedent. If hosting the Olympics is an honor bestowed by the planet, then it’s time to honor countries that are lessening their environmental impact. Development and building are part and parcel of preparing for the Games: with countries like Germany and Norway making great strides in alternative-energy generation and green building, why hand a giant building project to the country that is planning 562 new coal-fired power plants in the next eight years? (Plants that will, all by themselves, completely negate the projected gains of the Kyoto Protocol.) By the same measure, the United States shouldn’t be allowed to host the Olympics either: we’re planning a ridiculous number of coal plants, too.

The Chinese response to existing pollution, and other problems on the ground, leaves a lot to be desired, too. To “prepare” for the arrival of the athletes the government mandated the shutdown of manufacturing plants, and took a majority of vehicles off the road in the weeks leading up to the games. Those measures had less impact than was expected, and more restrictions were put in place. But no one has addressed the larger issue: if the air quality was too poor for the Games, isn’t it too poor for year-round inhabitants? Doesn’t it cry out for a real, permanent solution, rather than a pathetic temporary cover-up?

The whole project of the Beijing Olympics is like the environmental problem writ small. The Chinese preparations for the games are like their, and our, current approaches to the looming environmental crises, here, there, and everywhere. Put a pretty face on it, substitute patch jobs for meaningful change, and never, never say no to development, no matter what the cost.

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