04/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Olympic Effect

Potential host cities spend millions attracting the Olympic Games. The hope for a return on their investment is largely economic. Construction contracts, increased tourism and associated business dynamism. Sometimes cities get it wrong and the investment doesn't pay off. Debates about the cost and potential returns of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics have been a feature of Canadian newspapers for months. While the jury is still out on Vancouver, in other cases, the benefits have been real and lasting.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics are an example of a metropolitan region extracting maximum gain from their role as host. The preparation for the Olympics created a noticeable transformation of the city including infrastructure and urban improvements that made Barcelona a more attractive and livable place. The municipality's beaches were recovered and restored, a smart marina was built, roadways and traffic flow improved, public transportation expanded and Barcelona's reputation swelled as a world class destination.

But there is now something new host cities are getting from their investments: sustainability. The 2008 Beijing Games, for instance, were preceded by a laudable effort to clear the skies of one of the most polluted cities on the planet. The city authorities used the Games as a pretext and impulse to push forward needed environmental reforms that not only saved Olympic athletes from choking on the starting blocks, but improved the environment for Beijing's 12-plus million citizens.

It seems each successive Olympic Games raise the green stakes for cities and there is now an open competition to claim the gold medal for "the greenest games ever." We're seeing it with the Vancouver winter games. The city boasts an Olympic Village constructed to the highest LEED® green building standards fitting facilities with now de rigeuer green roofs, solar panels and water harvesting. But lifecycle considerations are also included. After the games, the villages will become eco-legacies for Vancouver, converted into sustainable living communities.

Even before the 2010 winter games begin, London is hard at work proclaiming its eco-cred. Former Prime Minister Blair claimed the London games would be a "cutting edge example of sustainability" and the greenest in history. Carbon emissions would be slashed, water conserved, materials recycled. Some of the plans turned gimmicky. The Olympic Stadium would be made out of recycled guns and knives recovered by London's Bobbies. The Olympic Flame would be carbon neutral. But beyond the PR stunts, London will truly evolve into a different city -- better and more sustainable -- following the 2012 Games. Over 250 hectares of polluted brown fields will be made green, transformed into the largest new urban park in Europe in the last 150 years.

Competition and glory are the essence of the games. After all, host nations will never cease striving for maximum medal counts and bragging rights. But as Beijing's, Vancouver's and London's citizens might tell you, an even more valuable remembrance once the Olympic flame is extinguished is a lasting green legacy. And that's an achievement worthy of the Gold.