The Olympic Games and Sustainability

Olympic Games symbol in a snowed landscape

The next Winter Olympics are just around the corner, and as usual we question the alleged sustainability of such mega sporting events, but this time we do so on the basis of scientific data.

Researchers at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, recently reviewed the social, environmental and economic sustainability of 16 editions of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games from Albertville 1992 to Tokyo 202 and found that in all three areas, there has been a steady decline in performance, as economic benefits have gone down and environmental costs have risen. This has occurred, despite the fact that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its host cities have been making ever more grandiose environmental claims.

‘That the Olympics be sustainable is a requirement laid down in the contract between Olympic host cities and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Sustainability is one of the three pillars of the IOC’s road map for the future, Olympic Agenda 2020, and features prominently in its continuation, Olympic Agenda 2020 + 5. The IOC’s sustainability strategy aims to “ensure the Olympic Games are at the forefront in the field of sustainability”. In 2018, the United Nations passed a resolution that declared “sport as an enabler of sustainable development” and signed a letter of intent highlighting the contribution of the Olympic Games to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’

Researchers used a conceptual model with the above-mentioned three dimensions of sustainability, dividing each into three indicators and measuring sustainability via a score card.

Model of sustainability for Olympic Games

It turned out that Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 had the lowest sustainability scores. The latter displaced a large number of residents for Olympics-related development and provided the excuse for comprehensive legal exceptions. The resulting sports venues remained poorly used after the event, and cost overruns were the highest.

Data show that: ‘There are no Olympics that score highly in all or even the majority of the indicators. Cities such as Vancouver and London, which have marketed themselves as models of sustainable Olympic Games and have advised other Olympic hosts on sustainability, score below average’.

The study concludes that the rhetoric of sustainability does not match actual sustainability outcomes and sustainability in the Olympics is clearly declining over time as Salt Lake City (2002) and Albertville (1992) scored higher than all the rest. 

How will Beijing 2022 and Milano-Cortina 2026 score?

Müller, M., Wolfe, S.D., Gaffney, C. et al. An evaluation of the sustainability of the Olympic Games. Nat Sustain 4, 340–348 (2021).