Olympics: let's root for sustainability

Olympics: let's root for sustainability

July 09, 2021

Olympics: let's root for sustainability

One of the most eagerly expected and followed events in the world brings with it record-breaking performances and excitement, but leaves a footprint on the environment and society that cannot be neglected

Sustainability is one of the requirements of the Olympics and is clearly written into the contract signed with the International Olympic Committee (ICO) by the cities that host the games. Unsurprisingly, the IOC sustainability strategy aims to “ensure that the Olympic Games are at the forefront of sustainability” and in 2018 the United Nations approved a resolution stating that “sport can facilitate sustainable development” and emphasized in a document the contribution made by the Olympics to the sustainable development goals.

But are we really sure the Olympic Games are truly that much-talked-about example of sustainability? 

The authors of an article recently published in the Nature Sustainability magazine tried to answer this question by analyzing the sustainability of several Olympic Games, both summer and winter, between 1992 and 2020. With an eye also on the Tokyo Summer Olympics scheduled for 2021, a year later than expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Step 1: measuring the impact

On the subject of the sustainability of Olympic Games, the scholars are divided. Some believe that while there is talk of sustainability at these events, in reality they focus on the interests of the few, global consumption and the flow of international investments. According to other experts, however, events such as the Olympics represent a unique opportunity to show and promote innovative solutions to global challenges

Faced with these contrasting positions, data is more important than ever, since only an analysis of the real sustainability of the games can help settle the dispute. 

Sustainability remains an elusive concept in the Olympic Games, and in mega-events generally,” say the authors of the article, who focused primarily on creating a model to measure the impact of the Olympics. 

There are three dimensions to this model: the ecological footprint (including that of food), the social footprint and long-term economic efficiency. The researchers evaluated further indicators within these three macro-areas. New construction, visitor footprint and event size were evaluated for the ecological aspect, while public approval, displacement of people to make room for the event and changes to legal regulations were analyzed in detail for the social aspect. Finally, from an economic point of view, cost overruns, public funding of the event and the use of facilities during the games were the focus of detailed analysis. 

Medals for sustainability

Once the items that make up the sustainability of the Olympic Games had been defined, for each of the 9 indicators the researchers calculated a sustainability score between 0 (the least sustainable) and 100 (the most sustainable). Using this, they were able to calculate the sustainability of each of the 16 Olympic events included in the study period. 

The analysis showed that the sustainability of the Olympic Games is not as high as the organizers claim, given the average score of 48 out of 100 achieved in the period 1992-2020, and the lack of any significant variation between the results for the three dimensions of the model. (44, 47 and 51 points on average for the ecological, economic and social dimensions, respectively). 

Among the most sustainable games are the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City (United States, 2002), with 71 points, and Albertville (France 1992), with 69 points, while the bronze medal goes to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona (Spain, 1992), with 56 points. 

Bottom of the ranking are the winter games in Sochi (Russia, 2014) with 24 points and the summer games in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil, 2016).

Beyond the specific analyses of the reasons behind the different scores achieved by the games (described in more detail in the original work), there is one sobering fact: the sustainability of the games has worsened over the years, despite increasing global interest in sustainable strategies and the stated commitment of international authorities. Vancouver 2010 is a kind of watershed, with previous games averaging 53 and subsequent ones averaging 39. 

Training for sustainability

What about Tokyo 2021? Based on the available data, a score of 40 was calculated for these games, well below the average of 48 estimated by the study. 

The fact that very high sustainability scores have been achieved by some games shows that all is not lost, but undoubtedly major reforms are needed if the Olympic Games are to truly become a model of sustainability.

The authors of the study suggest three: reducing the size of the event, in order to limit the ecological impact of visitors and participants, the need for new facilities and the waste of resources, including food; hosting the Olympic competitions in rotation between cities that already have facilities suitable for hosting the competitions, in order to reduce the social and ecological costs and, finally, improving the monitoring of sustainability by contracting dedicated experts.

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