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My Olympic Park experience: a missed opportunity


After my last post’s uncharacteristic outburst of unrestrained Olympic positivity I thought I had better ease back into the role of cautious and critical friend of the Games! After years working towards these few weeks, my trips to the Olympics have also left me frustrated. Undoubtedly, there is lots of sustainability in the Olympic Park… but has anybody noticed?

Sunset over the main stadium and the velodrome in Olympic ParkAs the sun sets on the Olympic Park, the sustainability of this Games has not been communicated well. © Adam Bowie

My gripe here is not that there isn’t enough sustainable stuff but that most people will be completely oblivious to it. I feel London 2012 are missing a big opportunity to tell people and engage people with it, and a significant opportunity to inspire some positive change is disappearing as fast as Team GB has climbed the medal table.

London 2012 has largely succeeded in making this into a sustainable event. But the One Planet Olympic vision, which WWF and BioRegional helped to create, always had one eye on the wider opportunities – to use the excitement of the Games to motivate people and businesses to tackle the Olympic-sized challenges of becoming more sustainable. The hope was that the London Games would bring alive the sustainable principles that underpinned their planning, construction and implementation and would find fun and exciting ways for visitors and sports fans to get involved and be part of the solution.

This is not playing out in the park or, I believe, the experience of visitors. Whilst Games visitors are issued free travelcards with their tickets, saunter past volunteers in sustainable uniforms, walk through newly created habitats on the banks of the Lea and possibly take their seats in a cutting-edge green stadium like the velodrome – you have to be a keen-eyed or knowledgeable observer to notice more than the fact that the park is quite leafy.

Apart from some nice recycled artwork and an occasional plaque, most ‘normal’ visitors will be left clueless. Tours of the sustainability features in the park are only for VIPs and ‘stakeholders’ – or those who somehow discover there is an amazing sustainable story to learn about. There was a lot more at the winter Games in Vancouver in 2010 where visitors heard about their sustainability commitments everywhere – in queues, in the loos and in promotional videos and messages in the venues. And Vancouver wasn’t nearly as green!

Nor is there much online action to engage London 2012 fans. If you search really hard on the London 2012 website you can find some pages on sustainability but they are firmly aimed at the stakeholder researcher, not the casual Games fan. I‘m sure 99% of site visitors don’t get any sustainability message at all. Similarly, I haven’t noticed any green theme being pushed in London 2012’s social media messaging – nor has it been a theme with broadcast media such as the BBC.

There is a London 2012 ‘Join In’ app that provides some interpretation of park features for visitors, but I only knew about this because LOCOG told me and it didn’t work on my new phone when I tried to download it.

The Orbit at the Olympic Park in LondonMany people will visit the Olympic Park and the Orbit, but how many know about it's sustainability? © John McGarvey

So much of the engagement on sustainability has been left to the sponsors, particularly the ‘sustainability partners’. Whilst I am not a big fan of EDF, their sponsorship of the London 2012 education programmes, Get Set and the Pod, has resulted in some sustainability-themed activities for students and teachers. And their Team Green Britain programme was looking interesting but seems to have gone mysteriously quiet this year in the run up to the Games. Of course, those with tickets to the park can queue to get into the pavilions of sponsors like EDF and BP but I don’t think a meaningful engagement with the green Games lies here for most people.

Actually, I think it is the sustainability partners that lie at the heart of the reason for London 2012’s disappointing failure to bring sustainability alive at the Games. I think London 2012 realised that some of the brands it had signed up as commercial sponsors were not credible partners to a sustainability story and then calculated that they were better off keeping quiet about sustainability than risk fuelling the flames (fossil-fuel powered of course) of negative PR. I also know that the sustainability partners, with their widely varying reputations and marketing priorities, found it very difficult to work together with London 2012 on a shared sustainability programme.

Another possibility for the missed opportunity lies in the administration of the Games. Whilst it is LOCOG who are ‘putting on the show’ right now, it was the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) who were responsible for much of the green planning and construction in the park. The ODA is now largely disbanded – job done – and so it may simply be the case of the ODA not being around to help LOCOG communicate their green achievements.

Whatever the reason, it is a shame! Sustainability should have been a strong theme for viewers and spectators – another dimension to their visit. Another reason for Brits to be proud and overseas visitors to be impressed.

Agree or disagree? Have your say at towardsaoneplanetolympics.com.

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