Photo by Bryan Turner on Unsplash

The sustainability of the 16 winter and summer Olympic Games held between 1992 and 2020 have recently been evaluated, surprisingly for the first time.

Olympics are the most watched the most expensive event on earth, with US$70 billion having been spent on them since 1992.

An Olympic Games, even more so than any other big event, is supposed to be sustainable in all of its phases: the planning, site preparation and construction phases; the staging of the Games themselves; and the subsequent life and end-of-life of the infrastructure created.

In Australia, the green building movement owes much of its early momentum from the 2000 Sydney Olympics efforts to out on a “green games”.

Yet although the Olympic Games “put sustainability at the core of their mission”, according to Martin Müller, lead author of the new study, “no-one ever bothered to conduct an independent, comparative study over time to see how different Games measure up against that claim.”

The model of sustainability used by the report’s authors.

Müller, a professor in the Department of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne, and his fellow environmental scientists writing in the science journal Nature, find that contrary to what you might expect, the sustainability of the Olympics has actually declined overtime and is, on average, only scoring “medium”.

The most sustainable Olympic Games in the period was in Salt Lake City in 2002, followed by Albertville 1992 and Barcelona 1992, while Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 were the least sustainable.

The report’s comparison of the different Olympic Games 1992 to 2016.

This decline is “despite the much-advertised priority of organising sustainable Games since at least the 2010s”, the researchers say.

“The power of the Olympic spectacle is not currently harnessed to transform unsustainable modes of global economic production, but to entrench them.”

As for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the researchers estimate that most of the data for analysis is already available, although some is seen as provisional because of the uncertainty over how many people will actually attend.

Ironically, the pandemic will be reducing the size of the Tokyo Olympics, because fewer people will be attending.

They give it a below average score of 40 out of a hundred, where the average is 48.

Comparing the overall performance of the last 20 years’ Olympics by category.

“While the Olympics have not much interfered with the rule of law, they have displaced more than 500 people,” the research says. “By contrast, new-venue construction is below average, with about 20 per cent of venues being new venues.”

Tokyo’s take on it

All along, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said its aim of a “carbon-neutral” Olympic and Paralympic Games is achievable, according to President Thomas Bach.

The International Olympic Committee’s description of its sustainability program.

The Japanese government has submitted two out of three promised sustainability reports including bridging to apply the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. Its aims have been split into topics:

  • Climate change: “promote” energy savings and use of renewable energy as much as possible “towards zero carbon”.
  • Resource management: aiming for what is translated as “zero wasting”.
  • Natural environment and biodiversity: “contribute” to “city within nature/nature within the city”.
  • Human rights, labour and fair business practices: aligning with the UN’s guiding principles on business and human rights.
  • Sustainable sourcing: a self-devised sustainable sourcing code selects products and services to be procured as well as licensed products.

The report has come under sustained attack particularly from NGOs and particularly for its procurement strategy.

Japan is, perhaps surprisingly to some, behind the learning curve of the sustainability agenda, and is a relative newcomer to the implementation of sustainability standards. The event’s organisers have confessed “sustainable procurement initiatives remain a novel concept in Japan,” and have invented their own standards, which have been criticised as inadequate.

Among the strongest criticisms have been from US-based Rainforest Action Network and 40 other NGOs for the use of timber from rainforests that are a home to threatened orangutans, just for making plywood used as the formwood for concrete casting of Japan’s National Stadium that has been rebuilt for the Tokyo Olympics.

[insert plywood.jpg. Caption: Some Indonesian plywood used at the Ariake Arena construction site in Tokyo. Photo: Rainforest Action Network

In its defence, in the latest sustainability report, organisers say they conducted their own site surveys of the origin of the timber and concluded “site surveys confirmed that companies are engaged in sustainable forest management.”

The story in the South China Morning Post documents the row that subsequently broke out.

“The organisers have decided to conveniently interpret their own rules and defy logic in order to dismiss any complaints lodged against them and claim no violations occurred,”  the critics said, calling it a “fake sustainability report” and claiming that the organisers are wriggling out of every criticism without actually doing anything.

Hydrogen power

The Washington Post has reported that Japan will further trumpet its plans to build a “hydrogen society” at the Summer Olympics, where the gas is fuelling the flame in the Olympic cauldron andhelp power the Olympic Village. Hundreds of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will ferry people around during the Games.

Japan’s hydrogen plans begin, ironically, at Australia’s huge lignite coal mines and a coal-fired power station in Victoria state’s Latrobe Valley. This brown coal, so dirty that even Australia’s coal-heavy energy grid is gradually moving away from it, will be used to electrolyse water into its components: hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen will then be liquefied by cooling it to minus-423 degrees and transported on specially built supertankers to a new unloading and storage terminal in the Port of Kobe.

Is this sustainable?

The London Olympics story

The 2012 London Olympics were meant to be one of the most sustainable.

“A concern for enduring urban outcomes lies at the heart of the Olympic Games in a way that no other sporting or cultural event can match”, observed a 2013 evaluation.

The London bid team worked with two voluntary sector environmental organisations: the internationally-constituted World Wildlife Fund (WWF); and the smaller United Kingdom (UK) based BioRegional, both keen on ecological footprinting, to craft what they called the “One Planet Games”.

Their “One Planet Living” approach was framed around ten principles: zero carbon; zero waste; sustainable transport; local and sustainable materials; local sustainable food; sustainable water; natural habitats and wildlife, culture and heritage; equity and fair trade; and health and happiness.

The Commission for Sustainable London 2012 was also set up as an independent monitoring organization to ensure targets were met. This was the first time that an autonomous system for monitoring of key stakeholders had been established for an Olympic project.

There were no claims that the London 2012 Games would be carbon-neutral, but efforts were made to reduce carbon consumption where possible, including reducing embedded carbon during the construction phase. Major savings to the tune of 400,000 tonnes were estimated to have been achieved.

Despite this, it still came out below average.

Can the games ever be sustainable?

Sustainability of Olympic Games could be improved, the Nature article authors say, by reducing spectator numbers and venue sizes, re-using existing facilities by rotating the games around a set list of cities, and appointing an independent sustainability body to monitor and enforce standards.

They argue that organising more sustainable Olympic Games is possible because several have scored highly on individual, if not on all, of the indicators used in their model.

“Yet incisive reforms are required to up the game in Olympic sustainability before these events can inspire and influence sustainable futures,” they conclude. “These reforms need to aim both at reducing resource input and at improving the governance of the Olympic Games to produce sustainable outcomes.”

Back in Japan, “The silver lining of a postponement is that it allows more time for our complaints to mature and possibly be revisited by the authorities,” said Rainforest Action Network’s Hana Heineken.

And things are already not looking too good for the sustainability of the 2024 Paris Olympics. The organisers have opted to destroy 10,000 m² of allotments which have been nurtured by the community for 85 years, teaching locals about diet, health and growing food, to build hotels, accommodation and a railway station for visitors. Plus ça change.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference,  Energy Management in Buildings and  Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

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