Competing with the world’s best — and winning — is a high that is hard to match. Still, I have mixed feelings about the Olympic Games.
What may have started out a series of friendly competitions has led to a show of power among nations as to which can produce the best, the fastest and the strongest. All of which, of course, take more than natural talent. It takes money and years of professional training to produce world-class athletes.
In some countries, the money and training are provided for by the government to promising youth. The problem is that these youth hardly ever experience youth. Children spend years in training and miss all the fun of being children.
A matter of preference, I suppose. And in the case of gifted athletes coming from poor families, it’s an opportunity to live and eat decently at no cost to their parents.
But all of that is really an aside. This is about one of the themes of the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics — the environment.
Twenty minutes into the opening ceremony, there was a short video about rising global temperatures and sea levels. And that’s swell. The environmental theme was even reflected in the Olympic torch segment. The Olympic cauldron which, by tradition, burns from the beginning to the end of the games is smaller than the ones in the past. According to the voiceover commentary, the smaller size is intentional so that less gas is burned and, as a result, there is less toxic emission.
The crazy thing is that after the cauldron had risen and that magnificent sun sculpture by Anthony Howe started dancing in the wind, fireworks burst from the Maracanã Stadium. It’s… tradition. But then, there’s that segment about the environment in the Rio Olympics opening ceremony. And I thought… fireworks are environment friendly? Hardly.
I love fireworks, and I love photographing them, but then I’m no environmentalist. At least, not in the fanatical sense. But for an event that was loudly promoting concern for the environment, it was more than a little ironic to light all those fireworks considering the resulting the air pollution that can be dangerous to human health. One website calls fireworks “our prettiest pollutant”.
Firework smoke is rich in tiny metal particles. These metals make firework colours, in much the same way as Victorian scientists identified chemicals by burning them in a Bunsen flame; blue from copper, red from strontium or lithium, and bright green or white from barium compounds.
There is more smoke from potassium and aluminium compounds, which are used to propel fireworks into the air. Perchlorates are also used as firework propellants; these are a family of very reactive chlorine and oxygen compounds, which were also used by NASA to boost space shuttles off the launch pad…
And of course, what goes up has to come down. Fireworks that fall to the ground contain residues of unburnt propellants and colourants, while particle pollution in the air eventually deposits on the ground or gets washed out by rain. Some of this finds its way into lakes and rivers, where percolate has been linked to thyroid problems…
The 2016 Olympic Games will end on August 21. And a grand fireworks display has been a closing ceremony tradition as well.
I’m just wondering how the organizers of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro can justify the fireworks pollution amid its calls for environmental concern.