Gold medals, acid rain

John May

February 24, 1992|By John May

Now that the games are over and the medals counted, we should bear in mind the words of Fritz Marz, president of the German Alpine Organization: "The Alps are being literally reconstructed because the good Lord was obviously not a skier."

Raped might be a better word.

The Albertville Olympics may have been a mother lode of white gold for a few corporate sponsors and international athletes, but "mining" the mountains has exacted a terrible price: the destruction of the very environment the event was meant to honor and celebrate.

An entire region was permanently scarred to provide two weeks of televisual delights.

Albertville itself was transformed into Alphaville, with 32 lanes of traffic entering and leaving an artificially inflated boom town.

To create the Olympic sites, which spread over an area of 74 square miles, 3 million cubic feet of earth were carved out of the mountains in the buffer zone around a national park.

More than 60 acres of trees were cut down. Alpine pastures were scraped smooth, new landscapes created.

Highways, tunnels, bridges, viaducts, hotel complexes, parking lots and waste dumps were created in a mountain region where the environment was already in jeopardy. No expense was spared.

At Courchevel, a design for an inexpensive, ecologically sound metal ski jump was rejected in favor of a concrete colossus so heavy it had to be anchored into the mountain by dozens of 100-ton anchors.

For three years the residents of La Plagne (10 hotels, 106 ski lifts, 118 downhill runs) had to endure construction work on the 1,500-meter bobsled run, whose final turn protrudes into the town.

To ensure that the artificial ice remained at the correct temperature, a cooling system with 50 miles of pipe, containing more than 40 tons of toxic ammonia, was installed. The run was closed by the ministry of the environment until local residents were issued gas masks in case of a leak.

A key man behind the games was Michel Barnier, a local member of parliament and author of "The Ecological Challenge: One for All." Mr. Barnier helped create an event that may permanently scar what an International Union for the Conservation of Nature has called "the most threatened mountain system in the world."

But let's be evenhanded here. The Winter Olympics were only the most dramatic illustration of the damage wrought by the ski boom. Since 1960, 40,000 ski runs and 12,000 ski lifts have been constructed in the Alps.

In that time seasonal visitors have increased fivefold, from 40 million to 50 million people a year, compared with the region's permanent population of 7 million.

A recent report by the International Center for Alpine Environments in France contends that downhill skiing is the most damaging human activity in the Alps. Development in the region over the last 20 years, the study said, has been "completely anarchic." If this trend continues, a third of the woodland in the Alps will be gone by 2050, mainly from acid rain damage caused by emissions from traffic and power stations.

Trees anchor the soil, stabilize the water table and shelter roads and villages from avalanches. If they disappear, soil erosion, desertification and then disaster will follow.

In addition the Alps contain the busiest mountain road network in the world, bearing 20 percent of all passengers and 15 percent of all goods transported in Western Europe.

Increased industry and human wastes have led to the pollution of mountain lakes. More dams have been quarried out of the mountains to meet increased demand for electricity.

The same conflict between development and conservation is also found to varying degrees at ski resorts in the United States, notably in Colorado and in the Adirondacks.

Perhaps the destruction of Albertville will serve a salutary purpose. Perhaps future Olympics will require environmental impact statements. Organizers at the next venue, Lillehammer in Norway, claim theirs will be the first "green games."

This trend may even result in the establishment of fixed venues to replace the current Olympic traveling circus.

Similarly, there is high-level pressure, principally from Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, chairman of Alp Action, an environmental group, to modify the Olympic charter to unite environmental principles with the games' humanitarian aims.

To the five rings that symbolize international harmony we can then add a sixth to confirm our commitment to the rest of the living world.

John May is author of "The Greenpeace Book of Antarctica."

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