The public increasingly expects host cities to meet tough environmental standards, says expert.
Matt Dolf of UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability says sporting events have the potential for good, but need greater accountability.
How are sports and sporting events used to create change?
Major sporting events like the Sochi Winter Games bring together huge concentrations of people and resources. About half the world tunes in to watch the Olympics. Very few platforms have that kind of exposure so you can see why there is enormous interest in leveraging these events. Traditionally they have been used to promote peace or health but in the past two decades, we have started to hear a lot more about sports and the environment. UBC’s Centre for Sport and Sustainability was created leading up to the 2010 Games in Vancouver to act as a community resource and improve our understanding of how sport can contribute to human and ecological wellbeing.
What is the environmental history of the Olympics?
The first time the world really paid attention to the environmental impacts of a sporting event was during the 1992 Olympic Winter Games in Albertville, France. This event was heavily criticized for the impacts it had on the alpine area. Then two years later, Lillehammer hosted the Winter Olympics and became a bit of a poster child for hosting a Games with high environmental standards. After Lillehammer, the IOC adopted the environment as its third pillar, alongside culture and sport. Since then, successive Games have tried to outdo the last, environmentally. The peak was likely the Vancouver and London Games, which deeply integrated environmental sustainability in their legacies, along with social sustainability. The current Games in Sochi and the next in Rio are under scrutiny about whether they will be able to meet their sustainability promises.
What happens if Rio and Sochi can’t hit their targets?
To win a bid for the Games, cities now need to set aggressive environmental targets that are very hard to meet. The same thing happens on the economic side. Financial benefits are often overstated in the bids to win citizen support and research has shown that costs come in consistently higher than what was initially promised.
One of the challenges is that there is little accountability to hold the organizing committees to their claims, particularly in countries where democratic levers are weak, Russia and Brazil included. We also don’t have objective guidelines to say what a green or sustainable event really looks like. Many sport events operate with a tinge of green with token items like adding recycling bins, but this isn’t really creating an event that will have a net benefit long-term in terms of energy or carbon reduction. Certainly not while participant air travel and venue operation dominates the footprint. The real question is, can you host an event that achieves a net reduction in water or energy consumption ten years down the road?
How could an event that has such a large footprint actually create lasting change?
It’s about changing our habits as a society for the better. The Vancouver 2010 Games appears to have accelerated some of our public transit projects, for example. These types of longer-term reductions might compensate for the higher short-term impact of the event. The unique focus of these mega-events can also bring people together in a common cause and quickly leverage change. On the other hand, change is really hard and we can’t just do a little bit and call it green or sustainable. We need to see these efforts as steps towards a fundamental level of change in society. Like the old campsite motto: “leave the place better than you found it.”
Today more than 100 Winter Olympians called on world leaders to take action on climate change. How effective is it for athletes to speak out on this issue?
Athletes can be very influential and it makes sense that Olympians are speaking out about this now. We have all heard about the warm temperatures in Sochi and how it is effecting the snow. But it can also be a bit of a contradiction. Athletes do a lot of traveling for competitions and training so their carbon footprint is often larger than the average person’s. That being said, we’ve seen some very positive examples of athletes creating change. NHL player Andrew Ference has led a major charge by asking players to offset their carbon footprint. There is a wonderful program in Canada called Clean Air Champions where hundreds of athletes go into elementary schools to teach kids about environmental issues. More than 200 teams and venues have joined the Green Sports Alliance to share best practices and promote environmental initiatives.
Matt Dolf, a doctoral researcher in kinesiology, heads the sustainability portfolio for the Special Olympics Canada 2014 Summer Games and is a technical committee member of the Canadian Z2010 Standard on organizing sustainable events.