58,000 reasons why South Korea is failing to create a sustainable Olympic legacy

Jenny Peng says the clearing of a patch of 'sacred' forest in South Korea to prepare for the 2018 Winter Games reflects the real Olympic legacy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 October, 2015, 1:55pm

For all the rhetoric from the International Olympic Committee about a sustainable legacy, it's hard to believe that an ecologically responsible tournament is the committee's top priority.

On the heels of the environmentally devastating Sochi Games, swathes of a 500-year-old "sacred" forest were cleared recently for a three-day skiing competition to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Even as Pyeongchang's organising committee promised to replant 1,000 of the trees lost, the venue represents a net loss rather than a neutral or net benefit

Since 2014, environmentalists, researchers and over a million online petitioners have opposed the organising committee's plan to clear roughly 58,000 trees for a ski slope on Mount Gariwang. Not only is the mountain a culturally significant area dating back to the Joseon dynasty in the 15th century, the area totalling 2,475 hectares was granted the highest level of environmental protection by the South Korean government in 2008. The status was lifted in 2013 for Olympic construction.

Given that abandoned Sochi facilities were built on the protected Sochi National Park - a Unesco world heritage site - the International Olympic Committee has yet to explain why deforestation is still part of its sporting events. It's a trend likely to continue in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which will include snowmaking efforts in a water-strained city and new ski courses in Yanqing Songshan National Forest Park, according to The New York Times.

Although cities need to meet ambitious environmental targets to bid for the Games, leaving an environmental legacy means the new facilities should benefit the cities in the long term, to compensate for the event's short-term impact. But the latest deforestation at Pyeongchang and previously in Sochi suggests a failure to hold organising committees accountable after bids are awarded. The task is even harder without an objective framework on what a sustainable event should be.

For instance, researcher Matt Dolf, at the University of British Columbia, points out that committees may create impressions of a green event with "token items" like recycling bins, which won't have significant long-term benefits when it comes to energy and carbon reduction.

Even as Pyeongchang's organising committee promised to replant 1,000 of the trees lost, the venue represents a net loss rather than a neutral or net benefit.

Achieving sustainability has been possible in Olympic cities such as London and Vancouver. But where host cities fall short, tougher penalties and objective goals are keys to meeting high environmental targets.

Jenny Peng is a Taiwanese-born Canadian journalist with interests in international development, environmental, youth, and women's issues. Follow her on Twitter @jennypengnow