Honestly, sometimes you have to wonder: Why would any city want to host the Olympics?
I mean, sure―there’s the massive boost in international prestige, the immediate jolt of political energy for infrastructure projects, and of course, the hundreds of millions of development and tourist dollars the Games inevitably bring. I totally get that part.
From a sustainability standpoint, though, hosting the Games is a risky business. Handled well, the Olympics can enormously benefit a host city. But when mishandled, the Games often lead to all sorts of problems: razed and ruined landscapes, mass dislocation of citizens, financial strain, and crippling political fissures.
For spectators, the Games are a 16-day athletic event. For host cities and their inhabitants, that event is just the midpoint of an epoch that can stretch on for decades. It begins when a city discovers that its bid has been successful—as happened to Los Angeles last week concerning the 2028 Summer Olympics. But it doesn’t end when the torch is extinguished and everybody goes home. The social and environmental impacts of the Games remain long after.
Los Angeles, to its immense credit, wants to break the pattern. In its official announcement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) praised L.A.’s stated dedication to putting on the greenest Games in history and the city’s vow to embrace the Olympic Agenda 2020 sustainability recommendations, which prioritize the use of existing facilities over the construction of new ones. This commitment to the reuse of buildings and other venues was by all accounts a deciding factor—maybe the deciding factor—in the success of L.A.’s bid. (Well, it was mostly a success: The city had originally hoped to host the 2024 Games, but Paris got that slot.)
By forswearing any new permanent construction related to the games, L.A. will certainly avoid generating the gargantuan carbon footprint that comes with building lodgings and venues for more than 10,000 athletes, twice that number of staff, and as many as half a million spectators. But L.A. is promising—ambitiously—to go much, much further than that. According to its own highly detailed, 34-page sustainability plan, the city aims “to deliver the first-ever ‘energy positive’ Games by generating more energy from renewable sources and Games-related energy efficiency efforts than are needed to power” the two-week event. (Note to self: Invent piezoelectric running track; sell technology to city of Los Angeles by 2025.)
Its best efforts notwithstanding, Los Angeles won’t be able to escape the fact that hosting an Olympics is perhaps the single greatest stressor a city can voluntarily inflict upon itself. Hundreds of thousands of people will suddenly descend on this already crowded metropolis, pushing its resources and its built environment to the limit. They will be hungry; they will be thirsty; they will need to get around from Point A to Point B. They will require electricity, and they will produce waste. There’s no getting around the fact that L.A. is going to feel the strain.
And it’s worth noting that a big reason Los Angeles won its bid is that other potential hosts—including Boston, Hamburg, Budapest, and Rome—began pulling out, one by one, until Paris and the City of Angels were basically the only plausible candidates left for 2024 and 2028. It’s easy to see what made those other cities nervous: the ominous examples of Sochi and Rio. The two cities strained mightily to put on the most recent winter and summer Games. They set environmental concerns aside during construction and development, only to pay a steep price later for their carelessness and misfeasance.
In both cases, the swooping stadiums and gleaming hotels of the Olympic venues are now abandoned and have deteriorated rapidly. Fields of glory are now brownfields. In Rio, which hosted the Games just last summer, nobody wants to tee up on the $20 million golf course built atop an environmental reserve or live in the luxury condos built in the Olympic Village. In truth, the Olympics seems to have exacerbated rather than alleviated a financial crisis that has seen major cutbacks in city services (including the police force) over the past year, not to mention the corruption cases tied to Games-related development.
Los Angeles seems fully aware of all the risks that come with this spectacle of athletics. And so far, from the signals it’s been giving, it seems fully intent on avoiding them. The fact that the city had to accept 2028 instead of 2024 as its year to host may actually be an advantage. Why? For one thing, the Paris Olympics will represent yet another chance to observe—and learn. That’s a gift, not a setback. And for another, if all goes as planned, by 2028 L.A.’s long-awaited “subway to the sea” will have been running for an entire year.
Mass transit to the opening ceremonies and all the events, from different points throughout the entire city? Somebody give those folks a medal.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.