The Environmental Legacy of Sochi: Time to Take the Olympic Charter Seriously!

By Antoine Duval, Senior Researcher at the T.M.C. Asser Institute in The Hague

The Sochi Olympic Games have drawn to a close. Many facets of these Games have come under fire from critical commentators: the price tag, the climate, the human rights violations, the low attendance, the quality of the hotels, the list goes on… At the closing ceremony, however, IOC President Bach complimented Russia for “delivering on all that it promised.” Considering environmental promises and the actual damage to the environment in Sochi, a different point of view on the environmental legacy of these Olympic Games will be set out here.

Sochi: The environmental disappointment
At the beginning, there was an assurance that the environment would not suffer. The Organizing Committee for Sochi promised “to apply a sustainable management system to the development of facilities and operations, sustainable design principles in construction and improved measures for waste collection, processing and disposal.” However, as highlighted by contradictory evidence, and despite President Bach’s praises, the promise was not kept. This was not an unforeseen development; the evaluation commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself had highlighted that the organization of the Winter Games in Sochi would be potentially destructive for the environment (1).  Somewhat naively, it had acknowledged that “[s]even competition and non-competition venues required for the Olympic Winter Games would be constructed within the boundaries of Sochi National Park, directly impacting on approximately 800 hectares (0.5% of the total area of the park)” and mentioned the astonishing fact, for anybody even slightly concerned for the environment, that “[t]wo of these venues, the Krasnaya Polyana Olympic Village and the sliding venue, would be located in the buffer zone of the Caucasus State Biosphere Reserve – a UNESCO World Heritage site – where, due to a recent rezoning of Sochi National Park, the construction of infrastructure for tourism and recreation is now permitted.” Moreover, the UNEP, which was initially involved in monitoring the environmental commitments made, criticized the Sochi Olympics as early as 2010. Since then, NGOs have not ceased in pointing out the total neglect for environmental concerns at Sochi’s construction sites. Thevery recent example of judicial persecution against the few environmental activists fighting the negative side-effects of Putin’s prestige project reminds us of the tremendous obstacles they face in doing so. In the meantime, the IOC has turned a deaf ear to the many SOS’s sent out by environmental organizations.

Organized irresponsibility at the IOC
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck has developed, in his work on the Risk Society, the concept of organized irresponsibility to qualify the fact that we live in a society where nobody seems to be held accountable for the (environmental) risks one gives rise to (2).  This concept fits well the attitude of the IOC. Here, we are confronted with an institution that calls into being every second year a gargantuan sporting event producing massive strains on the environment, without considering itself in any way responsible for their creation. This is the case despite the fact that the IOC is in charge of the selection of each Olympic City and that it is the sole institution determining the criteria on the basis of which the Games are attributed. The IOC is, according to its statutes, a private association that operates under Swiss Law. A priori it is of the opinion that it does not have the capacity to intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state. However, such a formalistic stance on the competence and power of the IOC is contradicted by the fact that it is very interventionist in practice. In particular, it uses its bargaining power to impose drastic conditions on candidate cities, be it in terms of economic guarantees or infrastructural investment. The IOC is a powerful institution in our transnational world, capable of bending the will of states and commanding the social conditions surrounding the organization of the Games. The environmental concerns (and blame) raised by the Olympic Games need to be addressed to the Lords of the Rings. In fact, it is only by submitting the IOC to the close scrutiny of the global public sphere that it might be coerced into enforcing its own constitution: The Olympic Charter.

A modest proposal: take the Olympic Charter Seriously!
The Olympic Charter, “as a basic instrument of a constitutional nature, sets forth and recalls the Fundamental Principles and essential values of Olympism”. It states that “[t]he goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind”. Furthermore, it is the IOC’s self-imposed mission “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly”. Thus, we should modestly suggest that the IOC takes its own “Constitution” seriously. Indeed, the rise of private powers in the transnational space does not relinquish them of any kind of responsibility. Therefore, a process of self-constitutionalisation of transnational private regimes has been advocated (3).  This implies that the values and principles highlighted as fundamental by the Olympic Charter, particularly in its preamble (one thinks also, in the context of Sochi, of the principle of non-discrimination), be considered as such in the IOC’s administrative practice.
More broadly, those values need to be given prevalence in the Olympic system and must underlie its complex net of rules. This would mean for example that the environmental criterion, which is nowadays allocated little weight,  should be upgraded and considered a fundamental pillar in the evaluation process of the candidate cities. Indeed, in the case of Sochi, the evaluation Commission of the IOC was not that far-off concerning the potential for environmental degradation; however, the disappointing grade earned by Sochi on these grounds was not weighted sufficiently enough to be eliminatory. In addition to that, such an ex ante mechanism could be bundled in with binding commitments enforced by independent third-parties (environmental NGOs) that could be integrated into the existing ex post monitoring mechanisms used to oversee the organization of the games (e.g. the host-city contract). This would imply in case of non-compliance that the IOC disposes in parallel to the designated Olympic City of an alternative venue for the Olympic Games. Eventually, the IOC’s “blackmailing” on financial conditions and infrastructural investments, could also be turned into a “whitemailing” forcing the host city to adopt certain environmental and human rights standards under the shadow of withdrawing the Games. The IOC is far from being deprived of means to enforce environmental and human rights standards. To this end, it only needs to give flesh to those fundamental principles anchored in the suave wording of the Olympic Charter.


(1) On the environmental aspect Sochi was rated under Jaca and at the same level as Almaty (Minimum grade 4,9/10, maximum grade 6,6/10) Report by the IOC candidature acceptance working group to the IOC Executive board, p.59

(2) The concept of 'organized irresponsibility' helps to explain how and why the institutions of modern society must unavoidably acknowledge the reality of catastrophe while simultaneously denying its existence, hiding its origins and precluding compensation or control. To put it in another way, risk societies are characterized by the paradox of more and more environmental degradation - perceived and potential - coupled with an expansion of environmental law and regulation. Yet at the same time, no individual or institution seems to be held specifically accountable for anything.” U. Beck, ‘Risk Society Revisited: Theory, Politics and Research Programmes’ in B. Adam (ed.) The Risk Society and Beyond, Sage, 2005, pp. 211-229, p.224

(3) G. Teubner, Constitutional Fragments, Oxford University Press, 2012

Sochi Watch Blog: A Blog by Russian activists monitoring the human rights and environmental abuses in Sochi
The Sochi Project: An amazingly rich (Videos, Photos and Prose) travel diary through the many transformations of Sochi and its region during the build up towards the Olympics.
UNEP, Sochi 2014: Report of the UNEP 2nd Expert Mission 28-30 January
Human Rights Watch, ‘Russia Flawed trial of environmental activists’, 22 June 2012
Human Rights Watch, ‘Update on Human rights concerns related to Sochi Games’, 1 May 2013
Human Rights Watch, ‘A hazardous environment in Sochi’, 1 November 2013
Human Rights Watch, ‘Olympic Construction devastates  Sochi Village’, 30 December 2013
WWF, ‘Mistakes of Sochi’
WWF, ‘UN Mission to Sochi failed to build dialogue between public and Sochi-2014 organizers’, 22 October 2010
Greenpeace, ‘Russia fails to fulfill Zero Waste commitments for the Sochi Olympics’, 21 March 2013,
The Guardian, ‘Sochi environmentalist jailed for three years for spray-painting a fence’, 12 February 2014

A shorter version of this column appeared on the website of the French Daily Libération on Saturday 22 February 2014