Reducing the Environmental Impact of the Olympics


 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

The Olympic Games – the international sporting event which takes place every four years – consists of the best athletes around the globe. The Games have been considered the pinnacle of sport for many generations. The next Games are the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, starting on July 23, 2021. 

The Olympics tend to rack up both attention and money for the host countries, as a result of tourism, attendance, and television rights. Yet, many host countries tend to look at the economic and fiscal side of the Olympics instead of the environmental consequences. In recent years though, international pressure has forced the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make sustainability a priority. So what have they done, what are they not doing, and what must be done moving forward?

The Good

The Tokyo Olympics have repeatedly promised to “put sustainability first”. All medals will be made out of electronic waste, and uniforms will be made out of recycled plastic. Most structures will also be made from sustainable wood. The IOC has also made it a point to share how sustainable the Tokyo Olympics will be; they have claimed that 99% of procured items will be reused or recycled. There will also be 100% use of recycled electricity.

The IOC said that 2.2 million tons of carbon emissions were reduced in the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics by the implementation of energy efficient and low-carbon technologies. They also argued that sanitation infrastructure in and around Rio was improved as a consequence of the Olympics, and that they instilled better environmental management practices.

The Bad

Taking in Zürich Switzerland, from Jorge Romero on unsplash

The Olympics have also had their share of environmental ignorance. For example, during the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, orders were issued to cut down thousands of trees to clear the way for a downhill track. Some of these trees were around 500 years old.

Environmentalists have argued that the 2014 Sochi Games were the single worst Games for the environment, since the entire region was transformed into a “construction site”. Heavy machinery was brought into natural reserves, mountains were deforested, and wildlife was largely disturbed.

In the 2016 Rio Olympics, pollution and parasites stole the show from athletes. Sailing competitions took place in filthy water filled with pathogens, which caused athletes to fear for their health. In the leadup to the Games, progress on water treatment was stalled and a goal of matching water sanitation levels was not met. Water was also filled with bacteria, viruses, and parasites, causing news outlets to caution spectators, like in this story

What Must Be Done?

To make future Olympics more sustainable, better environmental practices must be implemented. The IOC should commit to a pragmatic and strong resolution, something they can diligently follow. For example, in 2012, the IOC claimed that the London Games would be zero waste. But this was not the case. The IOC fell well short of their goal, and critics have questioned how committed the IOC is to the environment ever since.

Taken by Andreas Gücklhorn

Also, investment in renewable technologies could help tremendously in making the Olympics sustainable. This would not only support local entrepreneurs and the renewable technology industry, but it would also have a positive effect on the environment.

We could all advocate for responsibility to be taken by the IOC and host countries: this has proven several times to result in positive sustainability efforts. The Olympics have not always been environmentally-friendly even though the IOC has declared greener practices. Stronger steps are necessary to make the Olympics something everyone can enjoy, while also respecting the environment. Because with a greener, more sustainable model to orchestrate the events, the Olympics could be a beacon of environmental inspiration around the world.