Climate Corner: Let the Games begin

Feb 5, 2022

Giulia Mannarino

More than 2,700 years ago, in Olympia, Greece, the words “Let the games begin” were spoken to start what has become a global sports and cultural event known as the Olympic Games. This past summer the postponed (due to Covid) 2020 Tokyo Olympics were held, and the 2022 Beijing Olympics will be under way Feb. 4-20. The group that is responsible for supervising, supporting and monitoring the organization of the Olympic Games is the International Olympic Committee.

The not-for-profit, independent, volunteer IOC was established in June 1894. Today, it is a “carbon-neutral” (net zero carbon dioxide emissions) organization that has a strong commitment to not only “building a better world through sport” but also helping the world address the climate crisis. Their headquarters, Olympic House, in Lausanne, Switzerland, is one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. The IOC also has a fleet of 8 hydrogen cars as well as one of the first hydrogen stations in Lausanne, which supplies them with hydrogen sourced from renewable energy. It’s ambition is to become a “climate-positive” organization, meaning that the carbon savings they create will exceed the potential negative impacts of their operations. On March 4, 2020, the IOC’s Executive Board met and announced two important decisions that will help them achieve that goal.

One of the decisions announced was that, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Program, the IOC will contribute to the Great Green Wall project in Africa, an initiative to combat the effects of desertification. This project will support communities in Africa’s Sahel region working toward the sustainable use of forest, range lands and other natural resources. Led by the African Union, the initiative brings together more than 20 countries. The epic result will be an 8,000 km natural wonder of the world across the entire width of Africa that will improve food security and help communities mitigate and adapt to climate change. The IOC’s contribution will include the planting of an Olympic Forest from 2021 on.

“Climate change is a challenge of unprecedented proportions and it requires an unprecedented response,” said President Thomas Bach. “Looking ahead, we want to do more than reducing and compensating our own impact. We want to ensure that, in sport, we are at the forefront of the global efforts to address climate change and leave a tangible, positive legacy for the planet. Creating an Olympic Forest will be one way in which we will work to achieve this goal.”

The IOC’s involvement in the initiative creates opportunities for athletes and other organizations within the Olympic Movement to contribute to it as well.

The Great Green Wall project is not the IOC’s only collaboration with the United Nations. In 2018, in a partnership with U.N. Climate Change, the IOC launched the “Sports for Climate Action Framework.” Signatories to this framework take responsibility for their organization’s carbon footprint and identify commitments and strategies to achieve specific climate goals. Almost 100 sports organizations joined within the first year of launch and there are, across the globe, over 340 sports organizations now involved. The IOC also supports Olympic athletes in their individual efforts to combat climate change. An example is Hannah Mills, a member of the British sailing team who won a gold medal in Rio in 2016. Her concern over the fact that our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by 2050 led her to establish the “Big Plastic Pledge” campaign that has the goal of eradicating single use plastics in sports.

The other decision announced by the IOC’s Executive Board on that day was that all Olympic Games will be climate positive from 2030 on. After 2030, the carbon savings created by the Olympic events will exceed the potential negative impacts of their overall operations. The IOC and Olympic games have been actively addressing climate change since 2014 when sustainability was adopted as one of the three pillars of Olympic Agenda 2020, a reform program introduced by President Bach. Since that time, the IOC has been working with the Organizing Committees for the Olympic Games to ensure sustainability principles are embedded across its activities as an organization and that all Olympic Games are carbon neutral and have a significantly reduced carbon footprint.

Tokyo 2020 committed to prioritizing the use of renewable energy and compensating unavoidable emissions. Its carbon offsetting program considered the full scope of emissions related to the Games including the construction of permanent and temporary venues, as well as Games operations, such as the transportation of athletes, officials and spectators. Carbon neutrality is also the objective of Beijing 2022 which has committed to using 100 per cent renewable energy for all Olympic venues. The first Olympic Games to fully benefit from Olympic agenda 2020 will be Paris 2024. From the outset, each stage of the Paris Olympics has been designed with sustainability in mind. Milano Cortina 2026 and LA 2028 also have committed in their Host City contracts to achieve carbon neutrality.

Of course, there would be no Olympic Games without the participation of the athletes. These individuals, supported by coaches, families and sponsors, devote part of their lives to their goal of an Olympic medal. Regardless of the season, global warming is impacting all aspects of human activity including sports. The athletes involved as well as the host cities are having to make adaptations for present conditions. Tokyo 2020, which was held July 23 to August 8, 2021, was one of, if not the, hottest and most humid Games on record. Temperatures reaching the high 80’s/90’s with high humidity made all events high risk. To mitigate the effects of the heat, starting times were changed to later in the day and access to shade and water sprays was improved. Amid the heat concerns, some events were moved away from Tokyo. The marathon took place almost 500 miles North in Sapporo where temperatures were cooler and the course was covered with a reflective layer to cut pavement temperature. Despite these measures, all sports were impacted and all athletes, as well as officials, were at risk of sunburn, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, cognitive impairment and dehydration. These border line dangerous conditions put extreme strain on the athletes and certainly effected their performance with several athletes needing medical attention.

The upcoming Beijing Olympics will also be putting the impacts of climate change on display. It will be the first winter Olympic Games to use almost 100% artificial snow to cover ski slopes. In their sustainability report, the OCOG claims the “smart snow making system” uses 20% less water than traditional snow machines and most of the water used is recycled or rain water. But man-made snow doesn’t act the same as natural snow. It gets icier faster and is much firmer. A report written by researchers from the Sport Ecology Group at Loughborough University and Protect Our Winters environment group notes, “This is not only energy and water intensive, frequently using chemicals to slow melt but also delivers a surface that many competitors say is unpredictable and potentially dangerous.”

Global warming is also reducing the number of climatically suitable host venues for winter Olympics. In a 2018 study by Canada’s University of Waterloo it was determined that by 2050 less than half of 21 cities that have hosted these events will be cold enough to host games again. Although being outside in the natural mountains is a large part of a ski experience, skiing indoors may become the norm. Dubai has opened the first indoor ski resort in the Mid East.

Climate change is making it increasingly difficult to host sporting events like the Olympics. The fact that the not-for-profit IOC is concerned about the problem and doing more than its fair share to address it is heartening. What is disheartening; however, is that the fossil fuel industry does not have that same sense of duty and continues to disregard their responsibility for man made global warming. This polluting for-profit industry and their evil corporate billionaire CEOs continue to put profits before people. This is truly unfortunate, not only for the future of the Olympic Games, but for the future of our planet and our grandchildren.