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  • Writer's pictureKartik Verma

Sustainability at the Olympics

Updated: May 26, 2022

Congratulations to Norway for coming in 1st at the Winter Olympics with a gold medal tally of 16, Germany comes in 2nd with 12 medals and China 3rd with 9 gold medals. The US comes a close third with 8 medals. Congratulations to all the team and athletes! Which is your favorite winter olympic sport? I am a big fan of curling for sure :)

Speaking of the Olympics, did you know that sustainability is one of the criteria in the selection of the host country? Today, we take a deeper look at sustainability at the Winter Olympics in China and in past olympics.

What to expect today:

Also, before you start wondering, here is a cute panda photo as promised - meet Bing Dwen Dwen, the official mascot of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Beijing 2022 sustainability

A steel-plant-turned-ski-jump has become a symbol of Beijing’s push to make the Winter Olympics as green as possible. Instead of building a new venue, China utilized an existing industrial site and will keep the ramp as a permanent tourist attraction. In line with IOC requirements of games to be carbon-neutral, Beijing 2022 organizers have taken measures such as; minimizing construction by reusing five of Beijing 2008 venues, using renewable energy to power all Games venues, introducing low-carbon technologies, employing low carbon transport, and creating forestry-based carbon sequestration projects.

Image Source: Bloomberg

What are some of the initiatives taken?

To make the game carbon neutral, the Beijing Winter Olympics has taken several initiatives:

  • All Beijing 2022 venues were powered with renewable energy, with solar and wind as primary energy sources

  • Emissions offset through forestry carbon sinks and donations of carbon credits; planted ~ 80,000 hectares of forest, generating approximately 1.1m tonnes of forestry carbon sequestration

  • Reusing venues wherever possible avoiding new construction (even to the extent of using an abandoned steel mill as a venue!)

  • Use of high-speed railways, electric and hydrogen vehicles to connect the venues

Not everyone is convinced

This goes back to the debate of carbon neutral vs. carbon negative (not sure of the difference? Check out a short explanation here); critics say that planting trees or buying carbon credits to offset actual emissions is not reducing the overall carbon footprint as the project through which the carbon credits were sourced from would have happened anyway. The need of the hour is to actively reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible and not offset it.

Sustainability over the years at the Olympics

Almost every Olympics host since the early 1990s has highlighted their work on sustainability. In 1994, the International Olympic Committee listed environmental protection as the “third pillar” of the Olympics, alongside almost 3,000 years of focus on sport and culture. Starting from the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games in Norway, which was the first declared “Green Games,” each host has claimed to be green in one way or another. The measures have ranged from using natural materials in venue construction, developing recycling programs and building clean fuel vehicles to planting trees in order to offset emissions.

Which Olympic games takes the gold in sustainability?

A study published in Nature applies a model with nine indicators to evaluate the sustainability of the 16 editions of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games between 1992 and 2020, representing a total cost of more than US$70 billion. The model shows that the overall sustainability of the Olympic Games is “medium” and that it has declined over time.

The Games which take the podium are: *drum roll*

  • Gold: Salt Lake City, US - 2002 Summer Olympics

  • Silver: Albertville, France - 1992 Winter Olympics

  • Bronze: Barcelona, Spain - 1992 Summer Olympics

Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 were the least sustainable. No Olympics, however, score in the top category of the model.

Image Source: The Architects Newspaper

What can organizers do to make the Olympics more Sustainable?

The study outlines three actions to make Olympic hosting more sustainable:

  • Greatly reducing the size of the event

  • Rotating the Olympics among the same cities

  • Enforcing independent sustainability standards

Asking cities around the world to spend millions of dollars on marketing and promotional campaigns to host the event, then asking that they spend billions to construct new infrastructure and venues, is a grossly unsustainable model. Recommendations from critics include holding the games in the same four cities on a rotational basis or, on the even more ecologically conscious end, bringing them back to Athens permanently. Given the vast amount of money involved (media rights, tourism etc.), whether this will happen remains to be seen.

Our take

We agree there needs to be more done to make the Olympics more sustainable. Not just from an environmental point of view but from a financial capital investment as well. Rotating venues between multiple countries creates unused infrastructure (construction contributes to climate change) and almost all Olympics in recent memory have had budget overruns. If we can focus on hosting Olympics between 2-3 locations, we could reuse the buildings over the years and can better use the financial resources elsewhere more efficiently.

Recommendations from the team

  • YouTube - Winter Olympics mascot Bing Dwen Dwen - clearly because we need more such videos (2 min video)

  • Time - What two decades of Super Bowl ads say about climate change (5 min read)

  • Green Wordle - Check out this take on wordle for a cleaner and greener world!

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