The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games united the world in the shadow of two planetary crises: the pandemic, which emptied the stands and almost caused the event to be canceled, and climate change, which forced athletes and spectators to suffocate in 40 ° C heat.
Clearly, the Olympics can no longer ignore the environmental challenges of the modern world. Sustainability formally became one of the three pillars of the olympics in 2014, but the environment was already on the agenda since 1994.
This is what first inspired me to investigate the potential of the Summer Olympics to turn host nations into greener policy makers.
In my first study on the subject, published in 2013I examined how four Olympic host cities and countries fared in their ability to implement environmentally sustainable policies. I found that no causality was identified between the holding of the Olympics and improvements in the host nation’s capacity for environmental sustainability. Developments in this direction were linked to political changes.
More recently, research by Martin Müller at the University of Lausanne and five colleagues systematically evaluated how sustainable the 16 Summer and Winter Olympics were between 1992 and 2020.
The team devised nine indicators to assess the sustainability of each Games. They suggested, perhaps provocatively, that “the overall sustainability of the Olympic Games is average and … has declined over time.”
What makes an Olympics sustainable?
The nine indicators analyzed a variety of issues. They looked at how much construction each game needed, what the visitor footprint was, and how big the event ended up being. It was also taken into account if the local public approved the arrival of the Olympic Games in the city, as well as the “social security”, or if people were displaced for the Games to take place. The degree to which organizing the Games involved circumventing local laws, such as planning regulations, was also taken into account.
Budget balance was a factor, as was “financial exposure.” At the Tokyo Games, for example, the state paid more than half of the sports-related costs in a context of great uncertainty related to Covid. “Long-term viability” was also an important indicator in the study. Games could get more scores if venues were reused after the event, for example.
Each indicator was evaluated on a scale from zero to 100, from lowest to highest sustainability, and a mean value was calculated to determine the overall sustainability of the Olympic Games under review.
Across all indicators, the lowest value is reserved for the budget balance, as overspending is generally expected from the Olympics. Games that required a lot of new construction score low, as new places cost money and often involve moving people.
According to the study, Vancouver was the first host to explicitly promise to be sustainable in its bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. But the sustainability of the Olympics has been on a downward trend since then, and past Olympics generally they performed better than post-Vancouver.
The 2002 Salt Lake City Summer Olympics, the 1992 Albertville Winter Games in France, and Barcelona 1992 are ranked as the most sustainable Olympics. Albertville is generally considered bad for the environment, but in fact it only had a moderate number of visitors and staff and few new places were created, according to the study.
Worst offenders: Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016
For the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the picture is very different. These Games had the lowest sustainability scores. In the case of Rio, many people and communities were displaced to build premises and the law was reversed to do so. After the event, few of the venues were used regularly, resulting in the largest overcharge in the sample. Sochi also had extensive new construction with “no significant after-use for most places”.
The study was completed before Tokyo 2020 and, taking into account the uncertainty surrounding the event due to Covid-19, the results produced in the study are provisional. The overall score awarded was 40 points, below the average of 48 points. The most sustainable Games, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, scored 71 points, Albertville 69 and Barcelona 56. While around 500 people were displaced to build the venues, Tokyo made good use of the existing buildings. , with only 20% of the venues built. specifically for the Games.
Now that Tokyo 2020 is over, there is a chance to reflect on how the Olympic Games will play out in future editions. Knowing that a large part of the CO₂ emissions in any Game is linked to the travel and habits of the spectators, the decision to run the Olympics without them highlights the possibilities available to organize more sustainable Games. Of course, these circumstances are highly unlikely to recur, but we could still consider reducing the size of the Olympics considerably in the interest of sustainability. We could also decide to rotate the Games between the same cities to avoid construction and travel.