Commentary: The Price of Gold Medals

I am excited to hear that today is the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and Team USA is preparing to compete for gold! After all, coming out victorious with the highest medal count at the end of the games is an international honor.

Whenever the Olympics are brought up, most people talk about the odds of their team winning certain events or their favorite athletes, but it is important to step away from the TV screens showing the glamorous ski slopes and ice rinks. It is important to start thinking about the negative environmental effects of the Olympics.

New facilities have to be built in order to accommodate Olympic events, and oftentimes, people overlook, especially in smaller countries like South Korea, the lasting results from these constructions. Trees had to be cut down to build more venues, affecting the Pyeongchang community and environment. Additionally, the habitats of endangered species had been destroyed. As a result of the reduction in trees, these animals have been left homeless and unsheltered.

For this year’s Winter Olympics, Mount Gariwang, a royal, forbidden area that holds great historical meaning, has been damaged. This mountain is considered sacred by many Koreans from the Chosun dynasty, and was thus was declared a nationally protected forest in 2008. However, 58,000 trees from 78 hectares of Mount Gariwang have already been cut down for the Olympic ski slope. According to “The Guardian,” although the Pyeongchang Olympics Organizing Committee has promised to replace more than 1,000 trees after the games, the ecosystem has already been disturbed by the chemicals used to treat the soil and create snow, so the damages will not be completely repaired.

This is not the first time that construction for the Olympics has damaged the environment. The Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus found evidence of illegal waste dumping and construction blocking migration routes of animals for the 2014 Sochi Games. This is not a new problem, yet money continues to go into hurting ecosystems on venues and stadiums that are only used and visited for the sixteen days of the Olympics.

It is essential that members of the Olympic committee, in addition to the host countries themselves, plan ahead for construction in order to protect the environment. An environmental movement started in 1994 where candidate host cities were required to demonstrate their commitment to a greener Olympics, but these steps have not been continued to the present.

At the 2002 Sydney Olympics, eco-friendly village housing was provided for athletes, private parking was banned at venues, and solar panels were extensively used in facilities. The Georgetown Environmental Law Review found that Salt Lake City recycled energy from AC units to heat showers and bathrooms for their 2002 Winter Olympics. There is evidently awareness of the effects the Olympics have on the environment, but, unfortunately, not every host city has been as environmentally-aware as Sydney or Salt Lake City. Protecting the environment must be at the forefront of every host cities’ mind.

Before we celebrate every gold medal that our countries win, we should remember what’s been sacrificed to get to this victory. No matter who takes home the gold medals, we are all rooting for team Earth!