A gold medal for being green

Australia is making a grand statement at next month's global sporting fest. From start to finish environmental conservation will be the star
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The Independent Online

For the past 60 days Australians have watched with mounting anticipation as thousands of bearers carry the Olympic Torch on a winding route through this vast and ancient country. The bearers - mainly nominated by their communities for outstanding service or triumph over adversity - have been people of all ages and backgrounds, including the wheelchair-bound, community workers, Down's syndrome children, former Olympic athletes, and even 109-year-old John Lockett, Australia's oldest man, who was born five years before the modern Olympic movement began.

For the past 60 days Australians have watched with mounting anticipation as thousands of bearers carry the Olympic Torch on a winding route through this vast and ancient country. The bearers - mainly nominated by their communities for outstanding service or triumph over adversity - have been people of all ages and backgrounds, including the wheelchair-bound, community workers, Down's syndrome children, former Olympic athletes, and even 109-year-old John Lockett, Australia's oldest man, who was born five years before the modern Olympic movement began.

Starting at Ayers Rock, the torch will have been carried by 11,000 people through all Australia's states before arriving at the Games in Sydney next month; it has travelled on a surfboard through the waves at Bondi Beach and underwater at the Great Barrier Reef.

But it is not just the route and the bearers of the torch that have caught Australian imagination. For the boomerang-shaped symbol, with a top crafted to resemble Sydney Opera House, is now burning with a "green" flame. It has been specially designed to save energy and to cause as little pollution as possible - to introduce what are billed as the world's first Green Games.

This year not all the records set at the Olympics will be sporting ones. Sydney has already built the world's largest solar-powered suburb to house the athletes; used pioneering technology to clean up one of Australia's most contaminated sites, where it will host the Games; and helped bring an endangered frog back from the edge of extinction. And the Games have already notched up a major victory for the environment, by convincing Coca-Cola to change over to environmentally friendly refrigeration worldwide.

This year's Games are to be the first test of a new policy, hammered out by the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations Environment Programme, that makes the environment the third "pillar" of the Olympic movement after sport and culture. The idea, in the words of the great Australian runner Herb Elliott, is to "make the Olympic movement bigger than just a lot of athletes running around in circles once every four years".

Sydney, working with Greenpeace, made the environment the centrepiece of its successful bid for the Games. Back in the early 1990s the environmental pressure group was among 100 entrants to an anonymous competition to design the proposed Olympic Village. Most of the other entries were from leading architectural and development firms, but the group's design - for a car-free, solar-powered village using recycling and other green technologies - won.

The design was then made part of Sydney's bid, promoted with the help of Nicole Kidman, Tom Cruise and other celebrities in Monte Carlo in 1993. They presented the idea of the "Green Games" as the unique selling point of the city's concept and won, beating the favourite, Peking. "The Olympic Games in the year 2000 was awarded to the city of Sydney, Australia, partly because of the consideration it gave to environmental matters," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee.

Greenpeace then helped draw up tough environmental guidelines for the Games to prove the green technologies worked and to display them to a world audience. Sydney started by cleaning up the site for the Games, at Homebush Bay to the west of its harbour, in Australia's biggest ever land reclamation project. Over a fifth of the 760 hectare (1,800 acre) site had been heavily contaminated by dumped waste in the late 1960s and 1970s. This has now been cleaned up, partly by using a revolutionary technology that reverses the chemical process which produced the toxic waste in the first place, and some of the original wetlands around the bay have been restored.

The 650 homes in the athletes' village will rely on the sun for their main source of heating and electricity, making it the world's largest solar suburb. They will need only half the energy used by conventional Australian houses. Renewable energy is also being used to power many of the Olympic venues, the media village, and the Olympic Hotel. Rainwater collected from the roof of the Olympic Stadium will meet half its needs for water, and used water will be recycled to flush toilets and irrigate gardens.

The 10,300 athletes, 5,000 officials, 15,000 journalists and up to 700,000 spectators a day, will almost all travel by public transport. A new £300m train line has been built to the airport, and other lines have been extended to service the Games.

Furniture made of recycled cardboard is being provided, and after use it will be recycled again to make new tables, chairs and bookcases. The cutlery for meals on site will be made out of potato starch, and will rot down when thrown away. Only similarly biodegradable packaging will be allowed on the Olympic sites, and the use of PVC is being minimised in building.

The very rare Green and Gold Bell Frog was found living in an old quarry on the Homebush site. Not only were new ponds dug for it, the frog has thrived: its numbers have multiplied more than sixfold since work began. At the other end of the wildlife scale, whale watchers will be on duty in Sydney Harbour throughout the Games to ensure that none of the creatures is disturbed by the water sports there.

But there have also been failings. The organisers have flouted the official guidelines by cooling the Olympic venues with chemicals that attack the ozone layer and help cause global warming. Land near the Olympic site which ranks fifth in the world for contamination by dioxins will not be cleaned up until after the Games. And a huge, if temporary, volleyball court has been built in the middle of Bondi Beach, despite vigorous local protests.

Nevertheless an inquiry led by Maurice Strong, who ran both the landmark 1972 Stockholm Environment Conference and the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, has given the Games 8.5 marks out of 10 for environmental friendliness. Even the more critical Greenpeace has given it seven. And it has scored at least one major victory. After less than a month of a Greenpeace campaign targeting the Olympic sponsors, Coca-Cola announced that it would phase out chemicals which help cause global warming from all its new refrigeration equipment around the world by the time the next Games are held in 2004.

Both Greenpeace and the Australian government say that the Olympic Games will never be the same again. The International Olympic Committee will impose ever-tighter environmental requirements on cities hoping to stage the Games, and the venues themselves are likely to try to outdo their predecessors. There are some doubts as to whether polluted Athens will be able to exceed Sydney's standards in 2004, but the Australian Department of the Environment and Natural Heritage says: "Australia's hope is that the green records it set will tumble frequently at Games of the future."

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