What Olympics teach about going green

Story highlights

  • Maria Cardona: This year the Olympics have aimed, with some success, to be greenest ever
  • She says Games, and sports in general, are in a position to demonstrate green concepts
  • She says some sports stadiums are already embracing, leading on sustainability
  • Cardona: London transformed a polluted area for Games, shows what can be done

The Olympics are upon us. Every four years people all over the world tune in to breathlessly watch sports to which they would not otherwise give a thought (hammer throw? Sculling?). They do this as a matter of national pride. The same waxing and waning of our attention applies to environmental sustainability.

And this year there is a direct connection between the Olympics and sustainability — energy, water and climate issues. The 2012 London Games were aiming to be the greenest Olympics ever, and while there is a healthy debate in the UK about how well this turned out, organizers undeniably set a bold goal.

In a summer where this country is suffering through heat waves and drought that might have you wondering about the future of Winter Games, the push for the first sustainable Olympics is no small thing.

Sports may not have the biggest environmental footprint, but its visibility offers an opportunity for massive, worldwide cultural impact, bringing issues like energy use into the bright (renewably powered, please) spotlight.

It goes beyond the Olympics. Just last week the White House hosted an event examining how American professional sports teams are helping to bring innovative pollution-fighting practices into their facilities. For the teams, it is about saving money, sure. But it is also about that concept of social change, which is nothing new when it comes to sports.

Maria Cardona

Big cultural issues have long been reflected on the playing fields of our favorite teams. Look at Jackie Robinson breaking down racial barriers. Title IX and Billie Jean King breaking down gender barriers. Muhammad Ali taking a stand against the Vietnam War. Going green is different from the social equality movements of the last century, but tackling climate change and our addiction to foreign oil requires a mobilization to change that recalls those earlier efforts.

And if our ballparks and our athletes are seen as championing energy efficiency, cutting waste and using renewable energy, the message is that fans can do those things, too. Wind turbines (like the one at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians), and solar panels (in center field at Bush Stadium, not far from the Green Monster in Fenway Park, and on dozens of professional stadiums and practice facilities) are as American as apple pie -- and their presence in those parks reinforce that fact.

The White House event focused on successes already in place from Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and every other professional sports league in the country. And without a lot of public attention, they have made pretty amazing strides that set important examples for where our country can go.

Queen Elizabeth opens London Games
Queen Elizabeth opens London Games

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Queen Elizabeth opens London Games 02:02
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Olympic athletes light up social media
Olympic athletes light up social media

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Look at Seattle, where the Mariners saved themselves a million dollars by drastically cutting their energy usage (over five years, a 45% reduction in natural gas usage, a 30% reduction in electricity, and a 25% reduction in water usage). And the Staples Center is generating its own power with hundreds of solar panels.

If we are going to fight climate change, cut pollution and put the kibosh on our foreign oil dependence, this is just the sort of things we will need to do. Pro sports in America are leading by example by demonstrating to millions of fans that it can be done, that there are mainstream, apolitical solutions.

The Londoners are following our lead. As CNN has reported, the Olympic Stadium stands upon what was once some of the most degraded ground in Great Britain. Rivers that used to be some of the nation's most polluted flow through the Olympic grounds. The building itself stands as an exciting exemplar of the old green maxim, "reduce, recycle, reuse" in the way its steel structure makes it the lightest stadium of its kind ever built. It uses about 1/10 of the steel that Beijing's Bird Nest employed, including a tubular roof partly constructed of leftover gas pipelines.

The London committee is doing wonders to limit energy and water consumption. The bar has been set very high for Rio and other countries hosting future Olympic Games.

The potential cultural impact is enormous. I have seen it in person, having participated as a synchronized swimmer in the Pan-American Games in 1983. International games draw huge attention — and not just to high-profile athletes like Pernell Whitaker, the boxer who brought home the gold, and Greg Louganis, the diver who did so, as well.

The public took a keen interest in all aspects of the competition, including the construction of the venues. The examples that are set on that score can affect the global psyche. And as we have with many of the biggest problems facing the planet, Americans have led the green effort.

It's something we can be just as proud of as our medal count. Now, who is our best hammer thrower this year?

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