August 11, 1997
Juan Antonio Samaranch
President, International Olympic Committee
Chateau de Vidy
1007 Lausanne, Switzerland
Katia Mascagni Stivachtis, Chief, Section of Environmental Affairs
Department of International Cooperation and Public Information
International Olympic Committee
Chateau de Vidy
1007 Lausanne, Switzerland
I was delighted to learn (from your web page) that protection of the environment (after sports and culture) is now one of the main goals of the Olympics. The visibility and prestige of the Olympics give you enormous responsibility, especially toward young people, who will be strongly influenced by what they see. As you well know, nonverbal learning is very powerful, and is for many people (e.g. preliterate children) the primary means by which the Olympics teaches them about sports, culture, and the environment. People, especially children, assume that what they see on television, especially in the Olympics, is proper.
Therefore, I was shocked, saddened, and embarrassed when I discovered that mountain biking has been accepted as an Olympic sport. I am enclosing several papers in which I explain in detail the harm that mountain biking inflicts on wildlife. But I will try to summarize that information here.
We are in the midst of a worldwide extinction crisis. According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), one fourth of all of the world's animals are threatened with extinction. The primary threat is loss of habitat. Such loss includes obvious, outright destruction, such as clearcutting and open-pit mining, but also the excessive presence of humans, which often causes wildlife to abandon their preferred habitat. In either case, the wildlife lose access to important resources, such as certain food sources and potential mates. When judging effects on wildlife, it is essential to look at the situation from their point of view, not ours. If they abandon an area, the habitat is effectively destroyed for them, regardless of what we think.
The primary reason why mountain biking is harmful to wildlife, thus, is that it makes it much easier for people to get into wildlife habitat. Mountain bikers don't just show up at the Olympics to race. They have to spend many hours training. And where do they prefer to ride? In wilderness (wildlife habitat). And what kind of trail do they prefer to ride on? "Single-track" trails, which are primarily in wilderness, or at least the most natural part of any area. That is also, of course, the area preferred by wildlife. The Olympics are a powerful motivator. When people see a sport in the Olympics, they identify with the athletes and want to participate in the sport. Thus, by simply including mountain biking in the Olympics, you unleash a tidal wave of people buying mountain bikes, flooding parks and wilderness areas, and participating in races. As is usual when there is an increase in recreation, wildlife lose more and more of their (already dangerously dwindling) habitat.
The bicycle is a wonderful tool, but like any technological aid, it can be used for good (e.g. to replace auto travel) or evil (e.g. to expand man's domination of wildlife habitat). Similar damage arises from the use of the use of other technologies, such as climbing aids (extending man's reach onto cliffs), rafts (giving people access to the entire length of a river), night-vision goggles (making night-time access to habitat easier), etc. Throughout our evolution, technological aids (e.g. guns, the internal combustion engine, etc.) have given us vastly more power than any other species, and the more we have wielded them, the more damage we have done. You had the right idea when you banned sports that "depend essentially on mechanical propulsion". Technological aids have no place (or at most a minor place) in Olympic sports, which are based on simple physical activities like walking and swimming that measure the physical (e.g. strength and health) and spiritual (e.g. sportsmanship) dimensions of a human being, not of his or her tools.
Many mountain bikers also lack sportsmanship. They insist on riding even when their enjoyment conflicts with that of wildlife and other people. Elderly hikers are being driven off of hiking trails they have enjoyed all their lives. Threatened species have been killed by bikers, who then try to pretend that it didn't happen or was insignificant. Anyone who speaks out against mountain biking is attacked viciously, as I have been and continue to be. My physical safety and that of my family have been threatened, for simply telling the truth about the effects of mountain biking on wildlife. Many mountain bikers seem to see their goal as conquering anything and anyone in their path. I haven't seen such a lack of sportsmanship in any other sport (with the exception of professional wrestling and one infamous instance in ice skating).
Mountain biking also destroys vast numbers of organisms that live in and on soil, creating devastating erosion. One Olympic hopeful, for example, trained in Brown's Woods, DesMoines, Iowa, where habitat destruction was so bad that the county was forced to close the park to bikes. The knobby tires used by virtually all mountain bikers are perfectly designed to rip up the soil and kill the plants and animals that live there. They insist on using those tires even though they don't need that much traction unless they are traveling at excessive speed, or riding on steep slopes or wet ground where biking is inappropriate.
The Earth's environmental problems are so huge that they will not be solved without all of us doing our part. I appreciate that you are striving to do your part, and are re-examining the Olympics with the environment in mind. I hope you will consider dropping mountain biking as an Olympic sport, and take another look at all the other sports (e.g. canoeing, which also intrudes into important wildlife habitat) from the point of view of wildlife.
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
P.S. A larger issue, of course, is whether an activity that requires the long-distance travel of thousands of people can ever be sustainable. I suggest that you recognize that the Earth's oil supplies will soon be exhausted (estimated by the experts at about 2040), and create a committee to begin planning for it. (E.g., how do we want to make use of the oil that is left? Burn it up?!). Every organization should have such a committee!
Ehrlich, Paul and Anne, Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearance of Species. c.1981.
Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.
Phillips, Kathryn, Tracking the Vanishing Frogs: An Ecological Mystery. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
Stebbins, Robert, personal communication.
Vandeman, Michael J., Ph.D.
http://mjvande.info (especially http://mjvande.info/mtbfaq.htm)