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The Olympics and its decreasing level of environmental sustainability

When most people think about the Olympics, its environmental impact isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind. After all, why would one be interested in the environmental implications of the games and when you could be watching the world’s best compete for their country. However, you probably should as if you were to dive deeper into how the quadrennial sporting event affects the environment, you may think differently about what goes behind the scenes of your television screen.

A brief history of environmental sustainability in the Olympics

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) history of incorporating the environment into the Olympics indirectly started all the way back in the 70s. During the 1972 Summer Olympics, NOCs from all over the world planted shrubs brought from their home countries in the Munich Olympic park as a symbolic gesture acknowledging the diversity of the world as well as the environment. However, direct actions towards sustainability wouldn’t occur until 20 years. A month prior to the Barcelona Games, the Earth Summit in Rio brought issues of sustainable, environmental development to the forefront of global social politics. And as a direct influence, the 1992 Summer Olympics incorporated ideas of the Earth Summit with the original goal of the Olympics, specifically “a view of encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.

This all then led to the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games 1994, which were the first to contain clear environmental considerations. 2 years later, the Olympic Charter was amended by the IOC to include and officially establish the environment as the third pillar of Olympism. And ever since, the Olympics have carried on with sport, culture and the environment as a mainstay of the games.

The Tokyo Olympics and overall sustainability since 1992

Although the Japanese population were originally jubilant when their capital city of Tokyo was chosen as the Host City for the 32nd Olympic games, they almost instantly regretted it as soon afterwards there appeared a laundry list of problems. From costs skyrocketing into the stratosphere to the pandemic preventing the games from happening on time, there was certainly no shortage of unfortunate issues. However, the arguably most important issue was swept under the rug. And that being the ugly environmental impact.

In spite of efforts to reduce emissions from the largest commercial buildings and industrial facilities within Tokyo via cap-and-trade markets, this year's edition of the games has an official estimated carbon footprint of 2.73 million tonnes of CO2. That number is equal to about what half a million cars emit annually or more than what the cities of Vancouver or Melbourne emit in a year’s time.

But wait, it only gets worse.

According to Quartz, researchers have found that this year's games rank amongst the lowest in terms of ecological sustainability, tying Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014 with a score of 26.67 out of 100. Sourcing this information from a collaborative study of the games in an April article published by the British journal Nature, the evaluated sustainability of this year's games are shocking to say the least.

Figure 1

Trend lines and important milestones of sustainability in the Olympic Games, 1992–2020.

Despite some expectations, the overall trend shows that the overall, ecological, social and economic sustainability scores are all declining. Some more rapidly than others.

Nowadays, scientific knowledge seems to be under more and more scrutiny. However, while men and women do lie, the numbers don't. And after looking at them, you’d probably wished they did.

Can something be done about all this?

Well yes, but also no.

Despite promises by the IOC, their power is limited and it is almost entirely up to the local governments of the host countries to take action. Starting with abandoning the idea that "bigger stadiums equals better" and focusing on the environmental essentials only. While this year's Olympics have made an effort towards their main Sustainability goals, they have not fully done so. And despite claiming to be the greenest games ever, this year's efforts have been under scrutiny amongst claims of "superficially" as well as "greenwashing". In the same Nature article, co-author David Gogishvil says while the efforts of IOC are admirable, they aren't enough and most of the new policies will "have a more or less superficial effect,". Gogishvil also believes that "unless they (the IOC) heavily limit the construction aspect and the overall size of the event, they will always be criticised for greenwashing."

While we all hope that the Olympics games will be sustainable in some shape or form one day, ultimately it is not up to the IOC but the host country. And that is where we as the people come. By holding the government of the upcoming games accountable and showing our support for the process of sustainability, I’m confident that somehow, someway change will be made. It always has and if not, then there’s a first for everything.


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