Achim Steiner

Sport and the environment in 21st-century Qatar

DOHA, Qatar -- The International Olympic Committee gave the Japanese swim federation, among others, an award on the occasion of its "9th world conference on sport and the environment" held here over the past several days. For what? At the Japanese national championships, they used to print out race results on paper. The federation switched to a system that posts all results on its website.  Results are posted within 10 seconds after each race is done.

Sheets of paper saved: 2 million. Trees saved: 150.

When the system is put into practice at some 1,500 competitions across Japan in the near future, some 200 million pieces of paper -- 17,000 trees -- will be saved, federation officials estimate.

Let's be honest. A conference like this doesn't itself save the world.

But an initiative like that from the Japanese swim federation is not insignificant. And a conference like this one does highlight ways in which key sports, environmental and political leaders can find ways to talk to each other. And dialogue is always a good thing.

At the outset, Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations environment program, said from the lectern to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, "Our partnership with you is one of the great opportunities to give the world hope and courage."

Closing the event, Rogge vowed at a news conference to "continue our strategy of education, regulation and partnership."

The assembly marked the first time the IOC had held its every-two-years environment meeting in the Middle East.

The conference was the first major session since the IOC became a permanent observer to the UN. It thus made for a prelude of sorts to the 2012 Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro, the 2016 Olympic city.

More than 80 national Olympic committee representatives were on hand, as were delegates from some 20 international sports federations.

For those more interested in IOC politics -- some two dozen IOC members were also here, along with delegates from each of the three cities in the 2018 bid race: Munich; Annecy, France; and Pyeongchang, South Korea.  The Koreans came up just short in bids for the 2014 and 2010 Winter Games and while environmental issues made for a key theme of those bids, Sun-Kyoo Park, a culture, sport and tourism vice-minister said Monday in an interview with a group of reporters, "It is now more important because green growth has become a global issue."

That the conference took place in Doha was of course most intriguing on another level. This is, as the huge banner outside the conference center, the Sheraton hotel, reminded all put it, the new "global sport center." The golf and tennis tours make regular stops here. They're bidding for the 2017 world track and field championships after holding the first-rate world indoor 2010 championships. They put on the hugely successful 2006 Asian Games. They will put on the Pan-Arab Games this December -- an event that deserves wider attention, with 7,000 athletes.

And, of course, Qatar will stage the 2022 soccer World Cup. And it's in connection with the winning bid for that World Cup that they launched one of the most compelling environmental initiatives in recent memory.

Here they cool soccer stadiums to beat the desert heat.

They've known how to do that for a while. The Al Sadd soccer stadium, for instance, uses such technology. The basic premise is amazingly clever: Cool air is forced through pipes and onto the field to cool the pitch itself; at Al Sadd they took the design factor forward an extra step by covering the pipe exhausts with faux soccer balls.

The stands are also cooled by the same technology. Pipes deliver cool air to vents that sit under each seat.

All of that, however, uses standard air-conditioning technologies. So it isn't perhaps super-environmentally friendly.

What they did for the World Cup bid was unveil a new solar-powered system and promise a carbon-neutral event. This is what happens in a forward-thinking place like Qatar, and why an observation from the lectern from the secretary-general of the Qatar Olympic Committee, Sheikh Saoud bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, proved so resonant.

Last Sept. 14, the day that inspectors from soccer's world governing body, FIFA, showed up to see the purpose-built "cooling technology showcase" model stadium, it was 42 degrees celsius -- 106 degrees Fahrenheit -- outside.

Inside the showcase, it was 23 degrees celsius, or 73 Fahrenheit.

The system uses solar energy -- which is abundant here -- to heat water. That hot water is then put into a tank for an "absorption chiller" chemical reaction that cools it way down. Voila -- ready temperature control.

They didn't solve the world's environmental challenges this weekend. But what there is to learn from the Japanese swim federation, and from the Qatari soccer and Olympic delegations, is that a little imagination and ingenuity can go a long way.

"Nobody believes," Sheikh Saoud said in Arabic, speaking through a translator and referring not just to his own nation but to all of humanity and the environmental challenge we all face, "that we can be inactive or complacent."