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Environment a Key Theme at Olympics - 2002-02-10

The environment is a key theme of this year's winter Olympics. To mark the new emphasis, environmental researcher Jean-Michel Cousteau carried the Olympic flag, with seven other people, during the opening ceremony Friday evening. In Salt Lake City, Mike O'Sullivan spoke with Mr. Cousteau about the environment and his role in the Olympics.

The prominent French environmentalist recalls that in 1994, the International Olympic Committee added the environment to its major principles. "One was sports. The other one was culture and arts," he said. "And Salt Lake City was the first location where they could fulfill the philosophy of taking care of the environment, so there is a whole program that has been put in place here in Salt Lake City at the occasion of the Olympics, whereby the community received 100,000 new trees, which will stay there well beyond the Olympics. So good things have happened."

The Salt Lake City games are the first winter Olympics to set a goal of zero emissions and zero waste. The environment also became symbolically important as the usual opening procession, when eight athletes carry the Olympic flag into the stadium, was altered. This year, five prominent people from five continents were selected as flag bearers. They were astronaut John Glenn from the Americas, Archbishop Desmond Tutu from Africa, former Polish leader Lech Walesa from Europe, and Olympic stars Cathy Freeman from Oceania and Kazuyoshi Funaki from Asia.

Mr. Cousteau was one of the three flag bearers who represented the special Olympic themes. "Sports, which was Jean-Claude Killy; Steven Spielberg, which was arts and culture; and I was honored to be picked as the one representing the environment," he said. "So the eight of us had the extraordinary honor of carrying the flag into the stadium and see it being raised for the duration of the Olympic games."

It was an emotional and humbling experience, Mr. Cousteau recalls, but the symbolism of the moment most impressed him. For the first time in Olympic history, the environment had become an important aspect of the games.

Mr. Cousteau is part of family devoted to ocean conservation. His late father, Jacques Cousteau, alerted the world to the importance of the ocean environment, and of the threats that human beings create for it. "So I really felt the responsibility weighed enormously on my shoulders, and fortunately I'm surrounded wonderful people who can help me continue the mission. A third generation of Cousteaus, so the name will continue with my son and my niece and my nephew, who are very much interested in the ocean," he said. "And I think that's what my father would be most proud of today, and probably is. I'll find that out when I go diving next time."

Mr. Cousteau smiled and said that while diving, he can feel the presence of his late father.

Jean-Michel Cousteau now heads an organization called the Ocean Futures Society, and he calls his inclusion in the Olympics a giant boost for his cause.

Environmentalism has become a mainstream issue, and Mr. Cousteau has nothing but praise for Olympic officials. But there are environmental protesters in Salt Lake City, who complain about corporate involvement in the games and about the impact of the Olympics on the environment. Mr. Cousteau understands their point. He said nothing is perfect, and the job of activists is to complain when there are problems. But he said future organizers can look to the Salt Lake City Olympics as an example of what can be done to celebrate and protect the environment.