Sustainability and the Olympics

The state of disrepair faced by the city of Rio has been a focal point of discussion during the Rio Summer Olympics. Stories about problems ranging from the status of the Olympic village to the conditions in which outdoor water athletes are facing have dominated the media. Curiously absent though, has been discussion about environmental sustainability and the Olympic Games. While the International Olympic Committee has made great strides to try to incorporate the goals of Agenda 21 and further environmentally friendly ideals, it might already be too late to offset the immense environmental footprint created by the games. The reason is that much of that environmental footprint doesn’t take place over a few weeks every four years, but during the four-year period of sport that Olympics seeks to evaluate.

To directly qualify for the Olympic Games in the sport of judo requires an individual to be ranked top 24 in the world for men or top 14 for women. To do this, an athlete is required to fly all over the world in search of tournaments to accumulate ranking points. The highest-level athletes have flexibility in tournament selection, and can conceivably keep these flights to a minimum during the fierce qualification process. For most athletes, this is not an option. For athletes who don’t produce medals at major international events like the world championships, tournaments in far-flung places may be a requirement to make the games.

It is not unheard for an athlete to compete at multiple events on at least three continents. When one factors in training camps, the carbon footprint for this travel becomes even larger. A full life cycle analysis of the variety of important and expensive equipment that goes into elite level sport is beyond the scope of this article. That said, when you consider that at the end of the day the biggest footprints for a judo tournament are the mats and the bodies themselves, the footprint is minor in comparison to sports with far greater equipment requirements.

The tremendous financial cost and often-minimal benefits faced by host cities is well recognized. One need only read the stories about the fate befallen to the once gorgeous facilities in Beijing to see that these facilities can become a financial black hole for the cities that build them. Some of the financial cost is not even felt by the host cities, but by the athletes themselves. In the United States it’s common for an Olympic caliber athlete to live at or below the poverty line.

The International Olympic Committee has partnered with the UN to work towards incorporating sustainability into its programming. It has also made clear its wish to use sport to educate about the importance of sustainability and environmental protection. In their “Sustainability and Sport” report released in 2012 the IOC detailed their plans for the Sochi Olympic Games. Despite claims, reports have largely made it clear that the Sochi games failed to be environmentally friendly.  The London games to their credit implemented many plans that were meant not just to reduce the environmental impact of the games, but reduce long-term economic problems, such as stadiums that could be downsized afterwards and remediating old waste sites. While there is some dispute in terms of how green the London Olympics actually were, the honest truth is, by the time the games go on many of their largest environmental impacts have passed.

It is important for readers to understand this does not mean the Olympics are not a worthy pursuit. There are costs we pay as a global society because they can or could bring great benefits. Prior to my current career, I was an Olympic hopeful in the sport of judo. I remember watching my coaches and later my peers compete in the Olympic Games and the inspiration that gave me. Inspiration that did not yield an Olympic berth but still played a major role in my development as a human being. I’ve met many people whose lives are positively impacted by the Olympic movement. The goal of this writing is to simply push to bring down not just the financial but the environmental costs of the games. The Rio Olympics will inspire millions of people, is it that much more to wish they did it in a more environmentally friendly way?


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on August 22, 2016.


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