From gold medallist to environmentalist

Deng Yaping is a four-time Olympic gold medallist and a member of the Sport and Environment Commission for the Games. The table tennis star speaks to Zou Jing and discusses her hopes for a green future for China.

Deng Yaping, a four-time Olympic table tennis gold medallist, recently presented one of a series of Chinese public information films to promote environmental awareness in advance of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The film explains the importance of using both sides of paper in the office and is part of a project jointly organised by the United Nations Development Programme, the Beijing Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (BOCOG) and China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Each of the eight environmental films is fronted by a different Olympic gold medallist.

Zou Jing, deputy editor of World Environment, spoke to Deng about her role as a member of the Olympic Sport and Environment Commission and a deputy at BOCOG’s Olympic Village Department.

Zou Jing: Why were you chosen to present one of these films? What made you decide to accept the offer?

Deng Yaping: I suppose they wanted to refer to my table tennis style, which uses both sides of the bat, to talk about using both sides of paper and encourage environmentally friendly working practices in the office.

The environment is one of three major themes at the 2008 Olympics; there’s also an ongoing national effort to curb power use and cut pollution. I took part in a related event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. China is one of the most resource-poor countries in the world; we each have a duty to use the resources we have carefully. If a film can bring about small changes in the behaviour in people who watch it, then that’s an honour for me. I hope to use this opportunity to influence more people to be a part of the Olympics and environmental protection.

ZJ: What does your role as a member of the Olympic Sport and Environment Commission consist of?

DY: I sit on the committee as an athletes’ representative. Why was the committee formed? The Olympics is a massive event and it needs a huge amount of manpower, financing and materials. The Winter Olympics in particular, which are largely held outside, can cause a certain amount of environmental damage. In the past this has led to calls for a boycott by residents in Olympic host countries. In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) concluded that the Games must be sustainable. In 1995, the then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranchset up the commission to look at how the Olympics can help man and nature live in harmony.

The Sport and Environment Commission has 15 members drawn from different countries and several scientific advisors who make regular visits to Olympic sites. It has also worked with the United Nations Environment Programme to look at issues surrounding sustainable development at the Olympics.

At one discussion we talked about elephants: there are many elephants in Africa, but developed countries object to elephant culls and have even raised the question of sanctions to protect the animals. The African representatives said that while elephants should be protected, too many of them could present problems – they eat crops, leaving none for the farmers and affecting their quality of life. We have lots of discussions like that.

It made me realise that when you talk about environmental regulations you need to consider whose standards you are considering. Can the standards of developed countries be applied in the developing world? Besides individual differences between developed and developing nations, there are also unbalanced relationships: particularly on environmental matters. The IOC is right to advocate environmental issues, but each country’s circumstances need to be taken into account. You can’t just apply one single standard, or the Olympics will only ever be held in developed countries, which would go against Olympic principles of participation and be unfair.

ZJ: As a senior figure in BOCOG, what does a green Olympics mean to you?

DY: The Olympics is the world’s largest sporting event and it has a massive impact – including on the environment. Taking both the Summer and Winter games into account, there is an event every two years, so it’s quite frequent too. Construction in preparation for the Olympics can cause pollution in the form of dust and so on. The IOC doesn’t want to see environmental pollution or the loss of resources due to the construction of Olympic venues. It also hopes to use the Olympics to raise environmental awareness. The IOC always stresses that the host city must take environmental considerations into account in the planning process – and that has certainly been the case with the Beijing Olympics. In particular, we should be aware of China’s lack of resources as we protect the environment, using resources carefully and reasonably.

ZJ: How can you ensure the comfort of athletes during the Games, at the same time as meeting these environmental requirements?

DY: The people of Beijing have been very supportive of this: new products and technologies are being developed and recommended to us. We’ve used a lot of new technology in the Olympic Village to ensure it will be environmentally friendly, save power and be as multi-purpose as possible.

For the sake of the athletes’ health, the Olympic Village has a central ventilation system. But for the convenience of disabled athletes, ventilation fans are fitted in windows so that ventilation can be easily obtained.

The lighting in the village is solar powered, as is the hot water supply. There is a slight difference between our system and normal solar power supplies, because we’ve laid the panels flat on the roof. This means you can’t see them from the street and they don’t affect the look of the building. We also use clean fuels as much as possible; public transport in the village is electric-powered and silent. We also have an advanced air-conditioning system which doesn’t require cooling towers.

We used insulation and natural light as far as possible in building the Olympic venues. We hope to use the Olympics to encourage construction in China to be more environmentally friendly and advanced. China is urbanising rapidly; huge numbers of buildings are being constructed. I hope the Olympics will bring about more awareness of these techniques in the construction industry – and among ordinary people.

ZJ: As someone who studied for several years at Cambridge University and Nottingham University in the UK, and as a member of the Sport and Environment Commission, you’ve had a lot of opportunities to see environmental protection in action overseas. What have you learned from this?

DY: I spent five or six years in the UK from 1998 onwards. When I looked at my surroundings and in public areas I found that the whole society was very clean and there was a lot of environmental awareness.

In China, when it comes to cutting emissions and energy use, for example, it’s not that people don’t want to – it’s just that they don’t know how. China’s National Development and Reform Commission and a number of ministries have launched a program to educate people about little tips and tricks such as unplugging appliances when not in use and soaking rice before cooking it and printed these on hand towels for people to keep at home.

ZJ: So what do you do in your own life?

DY: I always use both sides of pieces of paper at work. Sometimes if I’ve already used both sides but there’s still some white space, I will cut it out to use later. In the office we give guests smaller bottles of water to avoid too much waste. Sometimes they want to take them away, which I’m very happy about – otherwise we can only use the leftover water for the plants. If I’m eating out I’ll always take leftovers home no matter how little there is. Some people think this is miserly and ridiculous, but I think they’re the foolish ones.

At home we stopped using plastic bags after we saw a programme about them. Using cloth bags or baskets is much better: you don’t create plastic pollution – plus delicate things like eggs are less likely to break. We’ve told our cleaner to use as little washing powder as possible when washing clothes to avoid causing pollution.

These are all little things and very easy to do if you just think about it. We only have one planet, and if everyone just paid a little more attention it would be under less pressure. It all adds up.

Deng Yaping is a table tennis player and the winner of 18 world championship medals from 1989 to 1997, including four Olympic golds. Deng was world number one between 1991 and 1998 and winner of the China 21st Century Female Sportsperson Award. She is a member of the Olympic Sport and Environment Commission and deputy in BOCOG’s Olympic Village Department.

Zou Jing is deputy chief editor of World Environment.

[This is an edited and translated version of an interview which first appeared in World Environment magazine. It is reproduced here with permission.]

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