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Faster, Higher, Stronger, Greener?

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Bringing home the Olympics is a matter of great pride. For a few weeks the sporting extravaganza brings the host country to the centre of the world stage. The last edition was watched by two thirds of the humanity. The favourable recognition for the hosts it brings is reflected in the boost to tourism the host city experiences for many years to come. Yet beyond this white-screen of unassailable pride the underlying economic reality of organising Olympics can be quite challenging. The organisation of the Olympics requires massive investments. The last edition of the Olympics saw China investing over $40 billion into its preparations for games. And much of that investment was the value the Chinese put to the pride the Olympics.

This is what is leading host countries to employ innovative measures to improve on cost and some of these changes have the potential to reshape the economics of games. Sustainability is closely interwoven in these measures, as we see later.

It is often argued that the Olympics provide economic stimulus to the host economy. In reality that is not true always. There are both upsides and the downsides. The upsides include tourism and productivity gains while the downsides include continuing public debts and maintenance costs post event. Whether the upsides outweigh the downsides is often difficult to quantify. The 1976 Montreal games was a notable example of unfavorable economics. The public debt accumulated due to Montreal Olympics in 1976 could only be paid off fully by 2005.

While the massive investment during the run up to the games spruces up the economic activity, the downsides appear once the games are over. These are in form of continuing public debts, reduced investment activity and often more painfully as continuing maintenance costs of the sporting infrastructure. The sporting venues Greece built at the cost of over US$ 3.5 billion for the 2004 Olympics edition require $100 million as maintenance costs each year. Many of these sporting facilities have no use now. The Olympic stadia built in Sydney for the 2000 games require $30 million for maintenance -as the organization committee reports- or host 200 events a year to break even. They hardly reach half that target. These are examples of unbearable costs that the host countries are no longer ready to foot, spurring the host countries to look at ways in which these costs can be avoided or reduced.

From the idea of building sprawling Olympic complexes with world class permanent structures in, the idea is shifting now towards building reusable/recyclable temporary structures. The cost of reusable structures is only 30-50per cent of the permanent structures. Building temporary structures will significantly reduce the cost burden of the organizers. Recyclable structures beyond slashing investments are also more environmentally sustainable due to their recycling potential. Post their use these structures are dismantled, their materials can be used for building new structures. This recycling of building material reduces the indirect carbon emissions related to the construction.

The idea has been pioneered by the London 2012 Olympics Organizing Committee (OC), which the organisers claim would be the world's first truly green Olympics. Sustainability has been made a key component of the London Olympics and integrated into its core design and operational processes.

The main Olympics stadium in London is a ground breaking sustainable design. The stadium for a capacity of 80000 people will be in part a temporary structure made up reusable materials. Post games, the structure will be dismantled and materials used elsewhere. There are other such temporary/reusable structures which are going to be widely used for London Olympics. Royal Horticultural Society has also expressed its desire to reuse the basketball arena. The basket ball stadium built is the largest temporary Olympic structures ever built.

Some of these venues will not just be reusable but also be used for hosting multiple games. The basket ball arena will also host handball and wheelchair rugby. This is a further cost, resource saving and carbon emissions too.

A number of other measures are being taken to reduce the cost and increase the sustainability of the construction process. Over 50 per cent of the material being used during construction will be moved using low carbon and low cost transport like trains and waterways. Even the tiles, bricks, granite etc collected from the demolished buildings is being reused in the construction. Bio-remediation measures are being used to clean and regenerate the soil being contaminated due to the construction and all timber being used is sourced from 100 per cent sustainable sources.

London OC is also building energy and water efficient buildings. Given the innovative designs, many buildings are achieving a- 15 per cent reduction in energy, 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and 40per cent reduction in water consumption. These measures will lead to lower operating costs of these sporting facilities and will be help in reducing the maintenance costs of these buildings post games.

Beyond that London Olympics OC has also constituted sustainability procurement policies for all suppliers. This takes the sustainability agenda beyond the operations of London Olympics, right into the operations of the numerous suppliers to the games.

A mix of these temporary and cost efficient structures will lead to substantially lower economic burdens later on. This twin trend of sustainability and cost saving that has begun from London Olympics might just hold the key to holding more profitable Olympics events in future and in process change the economic equation of organising Olympics.

Yash Saxena is a sustainability consultant with Emergent Ventures, a climate change mitigating consultancy. He also works on innovation evangelism with Techpedia

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