Greenwashing the Olympics
Dr. Sharon Beder

The Summer 2000 Olympics set to begin in mid-September in Sydney, Australia, have been hyped as the "greenest" summer Olympics of all time. But hidden beneath the fine landscaping at the competition site lies a massive toxic waste dump--covered by a meter of dirt and a mountain of public relations.

The Olympic Games will be held at Homebush Bay, a former industrial site and armaments depot subjected to years of unregulated waste dumping. Asbestos-contaminated waste and chemicals including dioxins and pesticides have been found at the site, along with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury and zinc. It is the worst toxic waste dump in Australia, and the bay into which the waste leaches is so contaminated that there is a fishing ban. Sediments in the bay have such high concentrations of dioxin as to make it one of the world's worst dioxin hot spots, largely the result of waste from Union Carbide's manufacture of the notorious herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

What is impressive in PR terms is the way this massive toxic waste site has been transformed into a "green showcase," thanks in large part to the surprising endorsement of Greenpeace and other key environmentalists.

A major report in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed a plan by key Australian business people and government officials to discredit a competing Olympic bid by Beijing.

Sydney's secret public relations strategy was developed by representatives of industries standing to benefit from the Olympics bid--including one of Australia's largest construction companies, the country's second largest telecommunications company, and a corporate lawyer and close adviser to Australian media mogul Kerry Packer.

In December 1992, these individuals met with New South Wales Premier John Fahey to discuss how to use China's human rights record to damage its bid and how to deflect anticipated criticism of Sydney's bid from the news media, Aborigines, environmentalists, and trade unionists. The committee added three international members, including James Wolfensohn, the Australian-born president of the World Bank.

The Beijing strategy involved covertly funding a human rights group to campaign against China's human rights abuses in the lead-up to the Games decision. To divert suspicion from Australia, the campaign was to be based in Europe or the US. It was arranged that a book be published simultaneously on the same topic, and "an eminent international identity" paid to have his name on the book as author. A story would also be "planted" in the London Times.

The establishment of a private company called Sydney Olympics 2000 Bid Limited (SOBL) to oversee the bidding process wrapped a veil of secrecy around this strategizing for the Sydney bid. As a private company, SOBL was exempt from Freedom of Information requests, thus protecting it from having to disclose its internal reports and documents.

Secrecy was further enhanced through various arrangements with the media. All of the Australian commercial television channels, its three main media companies and a number of radio stations were involved in supporting the bid, directly or indirectly. During the bidding, Herald journalist Mark Coultan stated that "journalists who write stories that might be seen as critical are reminded of their bosses' support and told their stories [will] be used against Sydney by other cities."

As the 2000 Olympics site selection process got underway, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) promoted the idea of a "green" Olympics. IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said the IOC's primary concern would be to ensure that the environmental impacts would be taken into account in the final vote on site selection. For Australia, therefore, it was critical to present itself as "green"--despite the secret toxic waste buried at Homebush Bay.

The co-opting of Greenpeace Australia was a key factor in the success of this campaign. Since Greenpeace has campaigned against hazardous landfills for many years, its support for the Homebush Bay Olympic site helped to reassure the public, which otherwise might have expressed concern about the site and its toxic history.

To win-over Greenpeace, SOBL invited its local members to come up with environmental guidelines for the construction and operation of the Sydney Olympic facilities. The proposed design of the Olympic Athletes' Village was developed by a consortium of architects which included a firm commissioned by Greenpeace Australia. On paper, the design looked impressive, providing for use of solar technology and solar designs, state-of-the-art energy generation and waste-water recycling systems.

When the IOC visited Sydney early in 1993, Karla Bell, Cities and Coasts Campaigner for Greenpeace Australia, stated her support of the full bid's environmental merits. Her statement did not mention the problem of land contamination. The IOC subsequently noted with much satisfaction "the great emphasis being placed on environmental protection and the attention being paid to working closely with environmental protection groups such as Greenpeace."

Support also came from Australia's Paul Gilding, then the head of Greenpeace International. "The Olympic village provides a prototype of future environmentally friendly development, not only for Australia but for cities all around the world," he stated.

SOBL hired Karla Bell and Kate Short of the Sydney Total Environment Centre (TEC) to draw up environmental guidelines for the Games. Short is a prominent Sydney environmentalist with a long history of campaigning on toxic issues, particularly pesticides. The guidelines advocated the use of recyclable and recycled building materials, plantation timber instead of forest timber, and tickets printed on "recycled post-consumer waste paper."

The TEC distanced itself from Short's involvement, expressing concern about the diversion of revenue into extravagant sports facilities, and the loss of valued local ecosystems.

Australia's official Bid Document to the IOC claimed support from various environmental groups, including the Australian Conservation Foundation, the New South Wales Nature Conservation Council and the TEC. Although individuals affiliated with those organizations had joined the bid committee's environmental task force, these groups themselves emphatically denied their support, and the statement had to be retracted.

The issue of toxic contamination of the site was not openly discussed prior to the Olympic decision.

In private communications at the time of the bidding process, Greenpeace Australia toxics campaigner Robert Cartmel said, "There is every likelihood that the remediation measures being undertaken at Homebush Bay won't measure up."

The village design and the environmental guidelines were heralded as a major environmental breakthrough in urban design. Ros Kelly, Australia's Federal Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories, proclaimed that "a vote by the international community for Sydney will be a vote for the environment."

Once the bid was won, however, the Australian government discarded the winning village design: The one that was supposed to be a showcase of green technology The consortium of architects that had designed the village complained of being "absolutely shafted." The government's lack of genuine commitment to a green Olympics became apparent. Within a year, Greenpeace was forced to denounce the government's failure to keep to the environ mental guidelines written by Short and Bell.

The planners also quietly shelved another environmental showcase, the Olympic Pavilion and Visitors Center, which was to have featured recycled materials and natural ventilation.

The new village design was touted as "environmental" because it used solar technology (even though more than half the houses were temporary structures). Worse yet, the plans called for the use of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) as a building material. Greenpeace has campaigned internationally against the use of PVCs, and the environmental guidelines that it helped draft called for "ideally avoiding the use of chlorine-based products (organochlorines) such as PCB, PVC and chlorinated bleached paper." The Olympic Coordination Authority's decision to abandon this commitment came in the wake of a public relations campaign by the Plastics and Chemical Industries Association. PVC manufacturer James Hardie even became a member of the Olympic Village planning consortium.

As evidence of toxic contamination filtered out, environmentalists involved in the Olympics bidding began to change their stories. In 1995, a major television current affairs program featured Greenpeace and Kate Short criticizing the cover-up of the site's toxic contamination--which they had known about all along but refrained from mentioning.

"Our investigations show... not only is the 'Green Games' concept rapidly becoming a cynical farce, but.., the presence of high levels of dioxin at Homebush Bay presents a real environmental and health threat," a Greenpeace news release stated. The head of the Olympic Coordination Authority (OCA), responded by accusing the green groups of "doing damage to Australia."

In 1997, OCAs Executive Director of Planning, Environment and Policy publicly stated that the site did not contain any 2,3,7,8 TCDD (the most toxic form of dioxin). After this statement was proven false, the OCA was forced to "apologize for the mistake."

Shortly after the bid had been awarded, the state government began releasing information about the contamination of the site to the media, carefully framing the information in terms of a clean-up. "Restoring Homebush Bay for the 2000 Olympics, billed as the biggest environmental repair job undertaken in Australia, is reversing decades of environmental abuse at a cost of $83 million," crowed an article in the Herald.

Karla Bell and Paul Gilding both left Greenpeace to become consultants to companies wanting to construct Olympic facilities.

By contrast, Robert Cartmel, the Greenpeacer whose misgivings kept him from joining in the campaign to green-wash Homebush Bay, has since been squeezed out of his job.

Excerpted from a series of articles that first appeared in PR Watch [Center for Media and Democracy, 520 University Avenue, No. 310, Madison, WI 53703, (608) 260-9713].

Dr. Sharon Beder is a professional civil engineer and associate professor in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is the author of several books, including The Nature of Sustainable Development and Global Spin: The Corporate Assault on Environmentalism.

© Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000