As many of you know, I spent most of February in Vancouver coordinating Sports Illustrated's Olympic coverage. One of the unusual opportunities I had while there was to visit the athletes' village. I say unusual because security at the Games is extraordinarily tight. Journalists are normally restricted in their access to the village. I was one of a limited number of reporters, photographers and TV crew members allowed to freely roam the newly built 17-acre complex a few days before the opening ceremony. No, I didn't see Apolo Ohno. No Lindsey Vonn either—she, like other skiers and sledders, was residing up in the mountains closer to her venue. But I did see where the athletes ate, slept, checked e-mail and Facebook, played pool and video games, washed their laundry, lifted weights, rode exercise bikes and tossed frisbees. I also learned a little about the environmentally-minded design of the village.
Olympics nowadays must be green. The International Olympic Committee includes environmental responsibility as a requirement of bids to host the Games. Vancouver—already a more environmentally progressive city than most—chose, among other initiatives, to make its downtown athletes' village a model of sustainability. The village was built in a gritty section called Southeast False Creek, once the home of shipbuilding, rail yards, steel works and other industry. Of all the gorgeous shots of Vancouver you saw on TV, none would have been of Southeast False Creek.
But it is a neighborhood undergoing an exciting transition based on principles of energy efficiency and sustainable living. The village's 23 residential towers had solar panels, energy-smart insulation and windows, and a heating system that made use of warmth recaptured from waste water. Grass was growing on the roofs, a doubly useful application: excellent all-season insulation and absorption and control of potential urban runoff. The roofs were linked to the plumbing. "The water that flushes the toilets is rainwater," one of the project's managers told me.
Many Vancouverites saw a different sort of green being flushed down those toilets. Construction overruns pushed the cost of the village up near a staggering $1 billion—equivalent to about $900,000 for each of the 1,100 apartments. Some of that money will be recouped. You can now buy an apartment there (and perhaps put up your own JOHNNY WEIR SLEPT HERE sign) for between $499,000 and $5 million Canadian. The setting is spectacular; the complex was built on the last tract of undeveloped waterfront land in Vancouver and looks out at the city skyline in front of a mountain backdrop.
Mind you, labeling any project or event "green" can be dicey. South East False Creek can never be restored to the ecologically rich mud flat and estuarial system it was when British Navy captain George Vancouver first sailed to the area in 1792. The salmon streams are gone. The waters are still recovering from years of pollution. But by creating an environmentally responsible athletes' village, and emphasizing green-mindedness in their day-to-day operations, and investing in renewable-energy projects to offset the carbon emissions generated by the Games, Vancouver's Olympic organizers achieved two not-insignificant goals. They minimized a gigantic event's impact on the planet and made at least a few more people realize that protecting the environment is a goal worthy of Olympian effort.