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Seth I. Kirby | The sustainability crisis of the Olympic Games

Seth I. Kirby, lecturer in sport and leisure management in the School of Science and Technology at Nottingham Trent University, discusses the impact of climate change and the blistering summer heat on Tokyo 2020, and asks whether there is any hope that future Games organisers will take the crisis seriously

A successful and ‘carbon-neutral Games’ is among the key targets of the International Olympic Committee following Tokyo 2020, the Olympic athletes having left the hostile environment currently being braved by Paralympians, with both sets of athletes subjected to the warmest games since records began.

In the lead-up to Tokyo 2020, athletes from virtually every discipline took their turn to emphasise the hazardous environmental backdrop for outdoor competition in the Japanese capital, not only battling extreme summer temperatures but facing this environment against the backdrop of a pandemic. 

To reduce the most brutal effects of the climate, organisers moved events to other locations and adapted heat countermeasures from test events, such as the early morning start for the marathon. Yet many of their procedures were unable to provide competitors with respite from the conditions. Ultimately, when sporting action got underway, blistering temperatures resulted in countless athletes remarking how the Games were difficult to compete in under such warm conditions.

A range of organisations sought to ensure that the minimising of climate change impacts were central to the IOC’s planning for the Games. To highlight the dangers of participating in intense heat, the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) released their Ring of Fire report, suggesting that extreme heat exposure was expected to cause widespread issues relating to the health and performance of athletes.

Evidence from other international networks demonstrated the greatest threat to future sporting events is the rapidly changing climate. A 2020 report on global sport and the climate emergency emphasised a range of sporting scenarios. The report’s author, David Goldblatt, argued that the Olympic Games and, in particular, the Winter Olympic Games, are in a perilous situation, with many previous host cities unlikely to be able to deliver events again in the future.

Carbon offsetting sports events not a solution to the global climate crisis

The Games are heavily reliant on carbon offsetting in order to reach the gold standard of ‘carbon neutrality’. Carbon offsetting entails sporting events organisers calculating their carbon emissions and paying to invest the same amount into balancing out the footprint of their events.

In July 2021, Tokyo 2020 distributed an update to their sustainability pre-games report and stated how their carbon offsetting programmes will be delivered through the means of carbon credits acquired from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Carbon offsetting schemes are routinely lauded as credible responses to tackling sustainability issues, but it is also argued they hand over responsibility for overpromising by not addressing environmental problems. Critics say that the use of carbon offsetting alongside typical sustainability standards have been declining at the Olympic Games since the early nineties.

For Olympic host cities, ‘greening’ measures focus on quick wins (recycled medals, for instance) but miss off the harder-to-implement environmental initiatives, such as plans for hosting areas to become more resilient to physical climate change impacts.

The mechanisms designed to deliver sustainability are geared in favour of new facility construction and are based on non-transparent criteria readily contested by businesses and citizens. Tokyo’s chief sustainability aim prioritised carbon emission reductions over considerations of the physical changes affecting local populations, such as urban liveability.

One of the most carbon intensive activities is spectator travel. These indirect emissions, commonly referred to as ‘scope 3 emissions’, account for transportation requirements and the travel of people to and from the games. The carbon footprints of travel-related emissions are frequently omitted from pre- and-post-games sustainability reports, such as in the case of Rio 2016.

What can sports fans and athletes do to shake-up the Olympic Games climate emergency?

Collective action signalled from the stands, combined with athletes using their platforms to participate in tough conversations on the desperate state of the environment for sport, is what is necessary. Greater environmental commitments and joined-up action is reflected in new climate initiatives being developed by prominent sports stars, including ‘The Cool Down’, a campaign which encourages Australians to join up the dots and take climate action in response to extreme weather and the challenges presented for future sports.

Sports teams and fans can support this momentum productively by vocalising their support for climate efforts at the upcoming COP26. Indeed, there are already sports organisations confronting the climate emergency. For example, sports federations like World Sailing and their forward-thinking sustainability agenda.

Other climate advocates like OlyEarth+ have emerged too. It intends to pair elite athletes with environmental sustainability projects, and could pave the way for more resolute climate action. But these grassroots and elite sports collaborations depend on key decision makers to address the natural environment head on.

A new study indicates that international sports federations are making sluggish sustainability progress towards engaging with climate issues. Adaptation is not required to return business to its usual operations but recognising the hazards of future extreme weather, as highlighted in the latest IPCC report.

For the Olympic Games to be regarded as an emblem of carbon neutrality, the bid manual needs to be ripped up and replaced by one which respects the future planetary constraints of local and international sports. Hosting the Olympic Games should be founded under the premise that they complement existing regional climate mitigation plans.

Sustainability practices adopted by host cities are yet to match up to our climate reality. There needs to be less insistence for just complying with global event sustainability standards and more concern for dialing-up cities to create meaningful solutions for climate adaptation.

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