Athens 2004 ‘fails green test’

Three years after Sydney was hailed for staging the first «Green Games,» environmental groups have accused the Olympic movement of taking a giant step backward in Athens. Dimitris Karavelas, head of Greece’s Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), said Athens 2004 (ATHOC), the Greek government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had already won the Games’ first gold medal – «the award for missed opportunities in 2004.» «They dropped the ball in Athens. Lip service was paid to environmental protection and a golden opportunity has been missed,» he said. Greece won the bid to host the 2004 Games promising to address air and water quality, fragile natural and cultural areas, traffic and waste management, but green groups said Athens, the IOC and the government had all failed. «Sydney got six marks out of 10, Athens will only get one, and even if everything changes over the next year, it’s too late,» Nikos Haralambidis, Greece’s Greenpeace director, told Reuters. All sides have hailed the upgrading of the capital’s troubled mass transit system with new metro lines, the purchase of a natural gas bus fleet and the reconstruction of the tram. But that is where agreement ends. Critics say that basic environmental standards such as the use of solar power, non-toxic building materials, recycling and waste management have not been implemented in large complexes such as the Olympic Village. The IOC rewrote the Olympic charter in 1994 to enshrine sustainable development and responsibility on environmental issues. But Haralambidis said the IOC had gone soft on environmental guidelines, failing to put pressure on Greek organizers. Lillehammer’s Winter Olympics and Sydney’s organizers were credited with involving environmental organizations from the planning stage. «In Sydney, NGOs (non-governmental organizations) were involved and planning began straightaway. In Greece, two years were lost deciding how the pieces of the pie would be divided up between ministries,» said Haralambidis. The first major flashpoint between eco-groups and ATHOC came in 2001 with the controversial decision to site the rowing complex on the coastal strip of Schinias, north of Athens. The area, which witnessed fierce fighting between Greeks and Persians in the 490 BC Battle of Marathon, became the focus of a modern-day conflict. Opponents of the venue said artificial lakes being created would damage a rare Mediterranean pine forest and an important wetland bird habitat. «The problems began with the siting and Schinias was the spearhead of it all. There was no environmental planning, no consultancy with NGOs or residents,» said Karavelas. Pressure groups launched a campaign to stop the project but ATHOC said the work would help to preserve the area, leading to the creation of a national park. ATHOC eventually won the backing of the European Union Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom after amending plans prior to a February inspection this year. The rift was deep though, and both the WWF and Greenpeace ceased meetings with Olympic planners in 2002, saying their input was being ignored. Karavelas said the environmental component came to be considered a luxury after chronic delays in a string of projects led the IOC to warn organizers that they risked losing the Games. Yiannis Pyrgiotis, executive director of ATHOC, pointed to limited successes in preserving natural habitats at venues such as the equestrian center in Markopoulo. «Approximately 600 ancient olive trees have been moved and prepared for transplantation as part of a pilot tree preservation program, the first of its kind in Greece.» NGOs have criticized planners of the Olympic Village in the northern suburbs, which will become a community of workers’ flats for 20,000 people after the Games, for missing green opportunities. Haralambidis said organizers should have used only green energy sources. «It’s a major scandal not to have solar-powered boilers in the Olympic Village.» With one year to go, tens of thousands of promised new trees, bushes and shrubs to soften the Athens urban sprawl have yet to appear. More than 60 percent of greater Athens is concreted over and Environment Minister Vasso Papandreou admitted in February that Athenians had a negative image of their city. Pyrgiotis insisted that a new awareness of green issues would be part of the Olympic legacy. «One of the successes of the Athens 2004 Games has been the incorporation of environmental awareness into practices and planning and the dissemination of environmental expertise and information,» he said. But Greenpeace’s Haralambidis was less optimistic, saying, «What Athens has to offer is a lesson in how things shouldn’t be done.»