Greenest Olympic Games Ever? - Looking Ahead To The Olympics

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This will be the greenest Olympic Games ever, Boris Johnson has said. So why has one of its sustainability commissioners resigned, and why am I adopting this sceptical tone?

Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, made the early decision to build new structures for 2012 instead of refurbishing existing buildings. London has plenty of energy inefficient old hulks, so why build from scratch?

There are several reasons but the one you’ll hear most often is: legacy. The Olympic legacy is to gift London with top quality sporting venues for generations to come. Armitt’s view is that this new wave of venues will last for hundreds of year. Maybe thousands. Maybe not.

To paraphrase one of the Velodrome architects, the Olympics is a housewarming party for London, and these new buildings are gifts.

In my opinion the architects deserver a lot of credit for the new arenas they have designed and constructed. Reduce, reuse, recycle. These are three tenets of energy efficiency, low carbon architecture.

The Aquatics Centre

Comprising of 2x50m swimming pools and 1x25m diving pool, the Aquatics Centre contains 2.6 million gallons. The Aquatics Centre is built of concrete, steel, timber, plus all that water.

Zaha Hadid Architects had a hell of a time digging the foundations because the site was prone to swampiness, being near to the river. In the end increased construction pricing and VAT trebled the cost of the overall project.

The major innovation here has been the wings to the Aquatics Centre, which can be detached to reduce the 17,500 capacity to 2,500. In terms of legacy this will replace Crystal Palace as the premier competition pool in London. And in sustainability terms, this reduced capacity should work.

The Velopark and Velodrome

Comprising of an indoor racetrack and one of the world’s most challenging outdoor BMX tracks, the Velopark and Velodrome are major architectural attractions, nicknamed ‘the Pringle’ - after the crisp - because the Velodrome’s shape. It has won a number of architectural awards, and is built from 56km of Siberian pine and 350,000 nails.

Efficiency measures include rainwater collection, efficient roof-lighting, and natural ventilation, all of which will reduce carbon emissions and running costs.

The outdoors racing track has been reduced in size by two thirds: I don’t know why. This has not been popular with the Eastway Cycle Circuit, which is being replaced by the Velopark as the saddle of UK cycling.

The Olympics Stadium

Supposed to be the jewel in the crown of the Olympics, London 2012’s Olympic Stadium has had nowhere near the level of design hype as the Birdsnest stadium did in Beijing. It’s situated on an island approached from all sides by bridges, and surrounded by the Olympic Park, dominated by sponsored food outlets and other ‘partners’.

While it’s not a big architectural success in terms of design – people haven’t been blown away by its appearance, or by the seating experience within the stadium – it has smashed its sustainability target, which was already ambitious.

The target was to reuse and recycle more than 90% of the materials demolished in order to make way for the Olympic Stadium. In fact, 98% was reused elsewhere, and 40% of the Stadium itself came from discarded or unwanted material.

The 2012 Stadium is far more efficient and less costly than the Birdsnest, and its stand capacity can be downsized for used after the Games, for the footballing programme of whichever club (West Ham perhaps) takes on the venue, and for events such as the 2017 World Athletics Championship.

The Olympics’ power consumption and energy output targets have turned out to be too ambitious: being 20% powered by renewable energy has proved impossible after a 2 megawatt wind turbine was cancelled onsite. Now the Olympic Park is only 11% powered by renewable energy.

To compensate, a host of decisions have been altered so that now instead of building new structures, the ODA has elected to rent. 90,000 square metres of space have also been given up. The result of these decisions is that predicted carbon usage has been reduced.

Overall the architecture of the Olympics features sustainable efforts and ethics, but the real carbon costs lie with...


4,000 complimentary BMW’s – non-electric – will ferry VIP’s around London’s Olympic lanes and will be responsible, along with the other extra vehicles clogging up the road, for significantly higher levels of carbon. Many argue that Olympic transport should either be electric, or something other than privately chauffeured.

Now - before making any criticism of anyone involved in planning the Olympics it should be acknowledged that this thing is no tea party; it is a monumental task.

The controversial Olympic lanes will turn people into sardines and the roads will not be safe for cyclists. This part of the Olympics – the logistics – will be where the horror stories come to life, and in my opinion, where the carbon use will be most inaccurately recorded.

The Resignation Over Sponsors

Meredith Alexander was one of 13 commissioners tasked with monitoring the sustainability of the Olympics. They have no real power and are there to have an opinion, not to make decisions. Meredith resigned in protest at Dow Chemicals sponsorship of the decorated wrapping (£7m) of the Olympic Stadium. She believes it’s unethical for the Olympics to accept sponsorship from any company linked to the Bhopal Disaster – a gas leak that killed almost 30,000 Indians in 1984 and injured maybe half a million in total.

Complaint about the sponsors is fairly typical of the 2012 Olympics. Two other examples of strange-but-true sponsorships:

- BP is ‘sustainability partner’
- McDonalds is in charge of ensuring we all have healthy food to eat.

Many Londoners feel they’re hosting a major event that will not benefit them and in fact will inconvenience them, disrupt their lives, and endanger them on their own roads.

Great effort has gone into making the Olympics a success. It's debatable whether the Olympics is good for any city, but at this stage let's just try to enjoy it.

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