What are the environmental impacts of the Olympic Games?

With the 2016 Olympic Games approaching, we thought we would explore how the planet's biggest sporting event effects, well, the planet!

Here's a little history:

776BC – The first Games are held in Olympia, Greece.

Married women were not allowed to participate or even attend the games, but unmarried women were allowed to spectate.

1900Women are allowed to compete in the Olympics. Yay!

1992 – the International Olympic Committee (IOC) attends the Earth Summit in Rio. The conference sparks ideas about how sport can play a positive role in promoting sustainability. This forms the foundation for the incorporation of environmental responsibility into the Olympics.

1994- Potential host cities are required to demonstrate their commitment to a "Green Games" . This means candidate cities wanting to host a summer or winter Olympics are chosen, in part, based on the environmental plans contained in their proposal.

1996 – the IOC adds "environment" as a third dimension of Olympism, joining culture and sport.

2000- the 27th Olympics in Sydney are the first games to make every aspect of the games environmentally minded. The eco-friendly Olympic village housing for athletes ends the myth that green technology is too expensive to use on a large-scale. Additionally, independent auditing by Greenpeace took place throughout the games. They came back with a fairly positive report and future games are judged according to the Sydney benchmark!

A few of the many environmental achievements:

  • private parking banned at Olympic venues and spectators receive free travel on trains and Olympic buses
  • The single largest roof-based solar energy system on the roof of the Olympic basketball venue, the Sydney SuperDome
  • The combined solar panels on the roofs of 665 houses in the Athletes Village are the equivalent of a small power station
  • Australian native trees and shrubs planted around venues to reduce water and mulching needs

2002- At the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, the energy recycled from the curling hall's air conditioning unit heated the showers and the bathrooms at the venue. (This system used ammonia, which does not destroy the ozone layer!)

You win some, you lose some

While there have been some triumphs, not every Olympics wins a gold medal for team Earth. Since each Olympics is held in a different country than the previous games, multi-million dollar stadiums and facilities are often left abandoned.

2014 Winter Olympics – Sochi, Russia

In 2014, Russia promised to deliver the first zero waste Olympic Games in Sochi. This was quite a massive undertaking considering it would involve hosting athletes from 88 countries, not to mention the press and spectators who come to watch the events.

Suren Gazaryan, a member of the environmental campaign group Environmental Watch of the North Caucasus (ENWC) told Time Magazine that the construction process for the Games has been hugely damaging for the region. He and the ENWC documented evidence of illegal waste dumping, construction blocking migration routes of animals, reduced access to drinking water for locals and an overall decreased quality of life for many Sochi residents.

On a positive note, Dow Chemical Company (Sochi's official carbon partner), did fulfill its promise to offset the games. Dow mitigated the carbon footprint associated with the games through energy efficient technologies and upgrades in infrastructure. By optimizing agriculture and industrial processes, the projects also reduce Sochi's environmental impact well into the future!

The opening ceremony being held in Sochi, Russia.

2012 Summer Olympics – London, England

In the executive report on London 2012 Games, research showed 31 of their 39 sustainability-related objectives were achieved!

Some of the stats:

  • 62% of waste actually reused, recycled or composted
  • 100% of waste diverted from landfill
  • 15.5 million sustainably sourced meals
  • 86% of Olympic park visitors traveled by rail
  • 29% increase in # of cyclists in Central London during the games as compared to the same period in 2011

2004 Summer Olympics – Athens, Greece

Unfortunately, the Athens Olympics missed out big time on a gold medal for team Earth. The WWF report compared the sustainability of the Athens games based on the environmental benchmarks set by the 2000 Summer Olympics held in Sydney. On a scale of 0–4, the Athens Olympics scored an appalling 0.77. Their weaknesses lied in protection of natural areas, waste management, water conservation, and use of green technologies.

How will Rio 2016 measure up?

On their website, Rio outlines measures they will take to make the 2016 Summer Olympics "the most sustainable in history".

A few of the specific strategies:

  • Composting of organic waste
  • Use of public transport for 100% of worker and spectator journeys
  • Carbon offset for the 28,500 athletes and staff expected to arrive by plane
  • Partnership with 20 NGOs for sustainable food
  • 0% meat sourced from deforested areas
  • Prize medals made from recycled materials!

[WATCH] See Rio's plans for sustainability in action!

For more details, check out Rio's Sustainability Management Plan

From the beginning, the Olympics have served to unify people from countries around the world. Sport has the ability to transcend political, cultural, language, economic and religious barriers. Because of this, the event has extraordinary power to promote sustainability to people around the globe. It's great to see Rio taking advantage of this unique opportunity to promote environmental responsibility on the world stage!

Planning on making a trip to the Olympics? Check out these tips for planet strong travel!

How to travel the world (without harming it too much)

Planet strong hacks every traveler should know

All images: Shutterstock

Read this next: If we cared about the environment like we cared about sports

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Abigail Bideaux Former Social Media Intern Suggest an article Send us an email

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