Professor, Norwegian Sports Academy
The International Olympic Committee stands at a crossroads.
This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.
Since the Barcelona Summer Olympics in 1992, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has worked on its reputation for the environment and sustainability. Over time, the organization has developed one sustainability strategy which, among other things, entails operational requirements for environmentally friendly toys.
Does the investment have an effect? Can we defend an Olympic event in a world that needs sustainable development?
Immediately and with regard to the greenhouse gas footprint, the answer is no. An Olympics involves extensive development of facilities and infrastructure. Researchers refers to the toys as the world’s largest and most expensive event.
In addition, there is travel and logistics. In Tokyo last year, 11,000 athletes with accompanying support staff participated. Without the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of spectators would have flocked.
But if we add United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a result, the calculation becomes more nuanced. Here, too, there are goals of economic and social sustainability. Can the climate accounts be weighed against the fact that an Olympics strengthens sustainable economy and urban development as well as reduces social tensions?
Researchers are seeking answers
Face to face with the controversial Beijing Games, the issue may seem sought after. But we need to broaden the perspective.
In a study in the recognized Nature Sustainability The researcher Martin Müller and co-workers covered all the Olympic Winter and Summer Games from 1992 to 2020, a total of 16 Games. They defined sustainability along three dimensions – ecological, social and economic – and operationalized in nine indicators.
The analysis shows that the events score the lowest on budget balance, facility development and social security. Large budget overruns are the rule, new facilities require a lot of resources and produce emissions. The toys burden the local environment.
On the positive side, in fact, most events have had good support from the population, and facilities and infrastructure have been reused and had lasting value.
Olympic sustainability on the decline
28 years of development shows a negative trend.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002 were named the most sustainable.
The Albertville Games from 1992 follow suit.
The Games in Salt Lake have a bad reputation due to corruption scandals, but delivered strongly on finances and after-sales.
Albertville was heavily criticized by environmentalists, but remains among the best in the class on the environment.
Lillehammer in 1994 is located in the middle of the tree.
While the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 (pictured) and the Summer Games in Rio in 2016 end up at the bottom.
There are also differences between the Winter Games and the Summer Games.
The winter games are less sustainable in terms of facilities and natural environment, while the summer games score low due to the large greenhouse gas footprint.
Can records be sustainable?
The Olympics have too another sustainability dimension. The very core of them is the sports competitions. The Olympic motto is clear: citius, altius, fortius! (faster, higher, stronger!)
For the founder, the French baron Pierre de Coubertin, the accurately measurable record was a key in the Olympic gospel. The Olympic Games are based on the dream of infinite, quantifiable growth.
Elite sports can appear as a clear example of an unsustainable logic
In one sense, the dream is the very opposite of sustainability. Take the 100 meter sprint as an example. Time is an accurately measurable resource.
Given equal external conditions, every hundredth of a second improvement will reduce the resources for future practitioners. In the future, a 100 meter is still 100 meters long, a second is still a second, and human genetic preconditions for developing speed change to a small degree.
New records will be set, but will require increasingly extreme measures. Elite sports can appear as a clear example of an unsustainable logic.
Competition as a limitation
Others see the record hunt as a distorted sports practice. With the philosopher Bernard Suits we can rather look to the logic of the game. We remove the most effective means to reach a goal because of the qualities the activity provides in itself: joy, excitement, challenge.
Sports are classic examples. Football players are not allowed to touch the ball with their hands, alpinists have to go through the gates, hurdles runners accept obstacles on their way to the goal. The competitions are created through self-imposed restrictions.
The restrictions are also found outside the arena, including in the form of doping rules. Why? It’s not just about health. In fact, the health argument may provide a basis for drug use in some cases.
An alternative answer is that the rules of sport are developed to test achievements that reflect athletes’ talent and personal effort, and that express authenticity and identity. Elite sports at their best thematize values in a concrete, physical and direct way.
Olympics and the art of restriction
Can the Olympic Games meet the demands of sustainability? Müller and employees answer a conditional yes. They point to good urban development and possible reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and to opportunities for equalizing social inequality and tension.
But strict reforms are needed. The recommendations are to scale down the scope of the games, reduce the number of organizer cities in a rotation scheme and introduce independent evaluations.
Olympic sports also have symbolic power. In a way, it’s about the art of limitation. Honest top athletes bet everything they have, in a game where they forgo a number of effective means due to the qualities the activity provides in itself.
Records are not the goal, performance development is a qualitative process. Is not the art of limitation also the core of the idea of sustainability?
The pressure increases
We must look beyond short-term solutions to strengthen the quality of life and the planet’s livelihood in the long run.
The IOC stands at a crossroads. Sustainability is declining. Allocation of the Olympics to totalitarian states increases the pressure. However may The events promote some dimensions of sustainability.
The Winter Olympics in Milan / Cortina (2026) and the Summer Olympics in Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) offer new opportunities. The question is whether Olympic leaders have enough visions and power to make the changes that are needed.