This month, as the Olympic flame makes its torch-uous journey to Turin, Italy, most people’s eyes are fixed on the upcoming games. But our eyes are focused a little farther down the track. In our role as sustainability consultants, we’ve joined the field of those helping the London 2012 Olympics committee work out how to site, design, and host a green event.

It’s a win-win.

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Environmental concerns weren’t uppermost in Greek minds back in 776 B.C. — though we assume those laurels were woven from organic olive leaves — nor did the games boast a green agenda when they were revived in Athens 110 years ago. But today, green is taking its place on the podium next to gold, silver, and bronze. A sustainability watershed came with the Centennial Olympic Congress, held in Paris in 1994. This event recognized the importance of both the environment and sustainable development, and led to the inclusion of a paragraph in the Olympic charter acknowledging the International Olympic Committee’s responsibility to promote them as a third leg, alongside sport and culture.

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As scrutiny of the Olympics and their impacts has grown over the years, controversies have bubbled to the surface, but such scrutiny also drives more positive trends. While green concerns are still something of an Olympic novelty, their rise increasingly meshes with the intended spirit of the games. And given all that’s at stake financially — the Athens games cost Greece around $16 billion, next month’s games are budgeted at $3.6 billion, and New York’s losing bid for 2012 cost $35 million — the time for more transparent and sustainable games has come.

You Snooze, You Luge

The first few Olympics after 1994 embraced their environmental challenges gingerly, and it was 2000 before the IOC enjoyed what might be described as its “green September.” When the Sydney games opened that month, they were hailed as the first “green games.” The government had pledged a massive cleanup of nearby Homebush Bay; designers had leaned over backwards to specify eco-friendly materials; recycling bins spread like rabbits; and the solar-roofing industry basked in the warm Olympic glow. Thanks largely to prodding from activists, major sponsors including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s also agreed to switch to less harmful refrigeration units (as a result, Coke actually changed its global refrigeration policy). But even then, the effort stumbled a bit: it was hard to ignore the fact that Homebush Bay was considered one of the world’s toxic hotspots. And a year later, with the Olympic complex a ghost town and Stadium Australia mostly empty, debate focused on how many venues should be taken down to allow redevelopment.

mpose a substantial environmental footprint as they erupt in new places, then leave a wake of white-elephant facilities behind. In 1976, Montreal was thrilled that its new Olympic stadium would be one of the first in the world to boast a retractable roof; instead, the roof remained inoperable for more than two decades, before being replaced at a cost of millions of dollars. Athens’ venues are estimated to require $100 million a year to maintain, and most aren’t regularly used. And Turin’s highly touted sustainability policies have generated plenty of controversy for their impact.

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If you build it, they will come … for a couple weeks.

Photo: iStockPhoto.

Footprints aren’t the only environmental issue the IOC has to contend with. When we recently visited Beijing, slated to host the 2008 Olympics, we were told that in normal circumstances anyone running there risks asphyxiation. Will clapping in ’08 be drowned out by coughing? Perhaps not — the Communist Party views the games as modern China’s coming-out party, and Beijing announced a revised master plan last April committing to another “green” Olympics. The city seeks to attain World Health Organization air-quality standards by 2008, even if it means shutting down or moving fume-producing factories and plants in the final weeks ahead of the games. (If that doesn’t do the trick, Plan B is to wash the gunk out of the air by seeding rain clouds with silver iodide.)

Considering a complete environmental, social, and economic vision of sustainability makes Beijing even more complex. The 2008 games will certainly be used by activists and some governments to call attention not only to Beijing’s environmental performance, but also to China’s record on the environment and human rights, as well as the degree to which the country’s economic growth is or isn’t based on policies and practices fair to its citizens and trading partners. For corporate sponsors of the Olympics or national teams, this could cause significant headaches, if activists target them as means to influence the Chinese government.

Uphill All the Way

So although the games have become formally greener, Olympians still trip over that third leg. When might full-blown sustainability become inextricably embedded in the Olympic spirit, experience, and legacy?

We don’t know. But as it is SustainAbility’s hometown, we closely watched the development of London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid, and have high hopes for that event. Besides injecting sustainable thinking into every aspect of the games, from siting to event management to media coverage, the 2012 Olympics are focusing on regeneration. They aim to drive the creation of the new infrastructure and greening that London’s Lea Valley area badly needs. The 2012 team is building low-carbon and zero-waste strategies, planning the largest new urban park in Europe in more than 150 years, and helping to restore river corridor — in general, hoping to use the games to showcase how mega-cities can effectively deal with environmental and social challenges.

David Stubbs, who leads the charge as the environmental champion for the London 2012 committee, is aware of the immensity of this task. “The challenge is to keep all these plates in the air — and spinning — at the same time,” he says. “There’s no killer issue, at least that we can see, except that we have to do it all at once.”

To help drive things along, we suggested a joint meeting with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics folk. Why? Well, Vancouver also won its bid in part based on sustainability. Today, Whistler, B.C., Vancouver’s cohost for 2010, has a “Sustainable Olympics” section on its website, and believes hosting the games will only enhance its community sustainability plan — which recently won top honors in the (get ready) “Planning for the Future” category of the U.N.-endorsed International Awards for Livable Communities.

In December, we facilitated the 2010-2012 joint meeting on sustainability in London. The historic session, the first to bring together different Olympic cities to explore joint working on green issues, attracted an excellent turnout of experts and stakeholders, and ended with an agreement to explore ways forward. For anyone who fears that the result might be skiers taking to the slopes on recycled plywood or an Olympic torch sputtering on sewage gas, it should be noted that those present were generally thinking of high — not low — technology.

As for corporate social responsibility types, they may still think in terms of reputational risks when pondering whether or not to get involved in the games, but there is a huge potential upside. The ultimate test of this new third leg’s strength will be whether the 2010-onward Olympics can act as powerful incubators that make life in Olympic cities more livable. If they do, they will not only help the entire Olympics movement grow, they will also evolve into a powerful driver of market change.