Bronze, Silver and Gold for some – Last place for the Planet?
Nothing brings a nation closer together than collectively cheering for your national competitor. It is a time where differences are overlooked and we all eagerly watch in anticipation of a fellow countryman or woman winning a medal for our country. Maybe you are glued to your TV, at the local pub, or maybe you are lucky enough to buy tickets to see your favourite event in action! But behind the crowds of colourful waving flags, the stunning arenas and pristine mountain slopes, what really goes into these bi-annual worldwide events, and what are the costs of the Olympics to our planet? More importantly, is there a future where this can be sustainable?
The first records of the Olympic Games are from around 778 B.C. in Ancient Greece, but were then banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius I in 393 A.D. The Games were resurrected a thousand years later in Athens on April 6, 1896. Modern day Olympics have been part of our culture for 126 years, so it’s no wonder major cities around the world make bids to the International Olympics Committee (IOC) in hopes to host the next events on world wide platforms. Hosting the Olympics has the potential to boost tourism, create better sporting facilities, improve transportation and infrastructure, create more jobs, and increase economic growth. Seems like a win-win situation right? There are potential economic benefits, but what about the costs to the planet?
Impacts of the events
Prior to 1956 the Olympic host cities were chosen based on the capability of infrastructure that already existed in those locations to host the athletes and the games. This kept the costs of hosting relatively low since the necessary facilities already existed. The amount of work that now goes into preparing for the Olympic games is extortionate. From building transit infrastructure to bring athletes and tourists to the games, to building new stadiums and venues for the games to take place, host countries can spend between $5 billion to $50 billion on infrastructure upgrades. Some cities, such as Barcelona, go as far as to import 2 miles worth of sand from Egypt to completely rebuild their waterfront for visitors’ enjoyment.
The infrastructure undertakings are not so kind to our planet, on top of the food, energy, and air travel that is inherently involved. One of the more recent Olympic environmental disasters occured at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. These games had intentions of being “sustainable” and yet they created illegal landfills for construction materials, destroyed habitats, forced animal migration, and contaminated water ways with waste spillage. Similar concerns are beginning to arise for the 2026 Cortina Winter Olympics regarding construction of roads and parking facilities, new ski slopes and lifts, and expanding current sites to accommodate the influx of people in a relatively small area.
An environmental consequence that is often critiqued, is that many of the venues are left abandoned and unused after the Games have finished. One of the worst cases of Olympic failure transpired during the 1976 Montreal Games. Between the years of 1956-1972 the number of athletes more than doubled and required host cities to create infrastructure that was not necessary for the size of the city outside of the Olympics. Montreal had to build facilities for these games that were too large and expensive, and the city was still paying off the debts of hosting these Olympics until 2006. Another famous flop are the venues that were constructed for the Athens 2004 Games that have fallen into disrepair due to disuse.
While it may be a dark thought, it isn’t too far-fetched to ask ourselves if there will even be climates suitable to host the winter Olympics for much longer? It was a sobering moment to learn that the 2022 Beijing Olympics were the first ever Olympics planned to run entirely on artificial snow. A research team at the University of Waterloo conducted a recent study regarding the crisis the games face. One athlete remarked that “Our sports are going to end unless there is serious change in the world”. This study found that the climate issues facing the Winter Olympics cannot be solved by the IOC, sporting organisations, athletes, and coaches alone – it must be tackled as a collective society-wide effort.
Cities that have succeeded
With all the negatives that can come with hosting the Olympic Games, there have also been a lot of benefits. Barcelona was reestablished as a bustling tourist destination thanks to the waterfront revamp after hosting the 1992 Olympic Games.
Sydney, Australia, has become one of the modern leaders in sustainability thanks to the 2000 Summer Games. With the promise of being the first ‘Green’ Olympics, Sydney was forced to improve their capacity to be more forward thinking in terms of investing in solar energy, creating better recycling and composting systems, and creating low impact architecture. The city also implemented Sydney’s first monorail line called the City Rail System which now reliably connects the sprawling city. Sydney had the goal of being a catalyst for change and “to make pioneering environmental design part of the mainstream”, and we may just be seeing sustainability as part of the mainstream after the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The Tokyo 2020+1 Games were one of the most sustainable games to date. These Games used sustainable materials throughout the games, from using recycled cardboard for the beds the athletes slept on, to recycled plastic podiums, and using metal from recycled phones and electronics to make the medals. They also used green energy and carbon credits in order to lower the carbon footprint of the games and the Olympic planners used the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals when preparing for the games. Tokyo not only set a precedent for the upcoming/current games in Beijing, Paris, LA, and Brisbane, but they have also created a new avenue of competition in the games – to be the best in sustainability. The competition is working, and organisers of the 2024 Paris Games, such as Tony Estanguet, plan to host “the most sustainable games ever”.
It may have taken 20 years from the ‘First Green Olympics’ in Sydney to get to where Tokyo went in 2020, but it doesn’t look like other host cities are slowing down. The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are the first events to be held at the same location as the Summer 2008 Olympics, thus reusing many of the same venues that were constructed for those events. These Olympics are finally creating venues that are multifunctional so that they can be used by varied audiences in the future. Hopefully as the Olympics evolve, the host countries are inspired to create a legacy for future games and for their country, and we will see Green Olympics simply as the benchmark.
The Olympic Games emit carbon, create waste and detriment, but ultimately can also create systems for innovation and improvement for cities that might not have done so otherwise. Above all, the Olympics unite nations through pride and competitive spirit. Now is the time for young trailblazers to make the Games a sustainable part of our shared culture.