Sports and sustainability – The Olympic Partnership?


Sports‘Sport’ can spring to mind a lot of images….

The football world cup, rain at Wimbledon, Usain Bolt breaking another world record, American footballers, riots in Canada, scandals around affairs in the premiership leagues, rising stars taking centre stage and old hero’s demoted to the commentary box, glamorous personalities holidaying in the tropics and partying in capital cities, private jets, large houses and a fleet of expensive cars. Sport is fun, faced paced, exciting and sexy, but rarely is it associated with being sustainable.


With the Olympics 2012 fast approaching, there is a need to question the positive and negative impact of sports within the wider community and environment. This blog examines sports’ environmental footprint, along with the positive community initiatives and measures to counteract environmental degradation and assesses the potential of using sports as a platform to promote sustainability.  After all, with devoted fans, world media coverage and huge economic revenue, this should be the perfect opportunity for generating awareness and creative and innovative solutions to sustainability issues.


It is recognised that humans activities on the planet generates a ‘footprint’. For example, a person’s ‘carbon footprint’ relates to the amount of fossil fuels used and green house gas emitted as part of their daily activities; whereas an ‘ecological footprint’ (EF) also measures the amount of land and aquatic resources used to sustain an individual, specifically based on consumption levels at that given time. As such an EF is a useful way to analyse the environmental impact of large sporting events, such as the FIFA World Cup.


At the 2004 FIFA final, held at Cardiff’s millennium Stadium, Professor Collins of Cardiff University attempted to measure the game’s EF.  Collins converted the energy consumption to exemplify the area of forest needed to soak up the carbon dioxide generated in the game’s production; and represented food consumption as the amount of farmland needed to make it in real terms. “This method gave the match an EF of 3051 hectares.”  This is an astonishing result, especially considering that the pitch of the millennium stadium itself is barely larger than one hectare! “Food was the second largest contributor, weighing in at 1381 hectares for the 36 500 snacks consumed ”, a number which could have been considerably reduced if spectators chose chicken nuggets over beef burgers whilst watching the game. If we take Collins’s findings as correct, the impact of one single match in 2004 (albeit the final of one of the world’s most popular games), is hugely damaging to our environment. Having this knowledge then, it seems foolish to continue to involve ourselves in sporting events in such an enormous way the world over.


Where sports may lack in terms of environmental positives, they also bring with them legacies which are, in many ways, hugely constructive. There are major elements in cultures all around the world which have been shaped by sports: economies have been developed through the revenue generated by fans, apparel and ticket sales for matches. Sport can act as a way to alleviate social deprivation and promote economic growth in less developed communities. For example as running became popular in Peru “many jobs are created. The runners need shoes, so shoe factories are created and jobs are created from that… The races bring in tourism from all over, so hotels and lodges are built. Tourist also rock climb, ski and take part in other activities that use the Peruvian landscape” .  Other benefits include promotion of health and wellbeing, and of course sports are fun and enjoyable.


What is more although environmental commitment has not been huge on the agenda for sport, this may be changing as interesting initiatives are presenting themselves the world over. ‘Fans without Foot Prints’ for example is a for profit organisation, the concept of which is that dedicated fans can counteract their ‘fanprint’ (the environmental  impact which their support generates) by making a contribution to green projects within their local community.  Another example is ‘Sustainability in Sport’  an organisation whose aim is to counteract negative environmental impacts created by sports. Set up as a partnership between Gary Neville, Manchester United’s former captain, and Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity (a clean, green, energy company), this organisation oversees projects which incorporate green technology such as solar panels into local sports clubs; therefore ensuring that communities can enjoy all the benefits of sports whilst remaining sustainable. This fusion of clean technology and sport stars’ popularity is the kind of initiative which brings coverage to the environmental impact of sports as well as creating a positive buzz around sustainability. Gary, we approve!


This time round, the 2012 London Olympics are at the forefront of sustainability- the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) has been regenerating what was previously a contaminated and deprived area of East London to build the Olympic Stadium. The ODA’s sustainability strategy has focused on five main areas: minimising climate Change though using onsite energy generation and renewable energy, reducing waste through reusing and recycling materials, protecting local Biodiversity, promoting social inclusion by creative employment and business opportunities and lastly but not least, promoting sport and healthy, sustainable lifestyles. The plan includes the ODA’s own carbon footprinting study to measure the climate change impact of the games, with the hope of being able to identify ways to reduce emissions. They have also gone to some lengths to promote walking and cycling to the events, as well as the use of public transport.

Whilst the above mentioned are commendable for a sporting event of this scale, the sheer number of visitors attending the games means that the ODA also faces the task of minimising their ‘fan print’ as much as possible.  This could perhaps be approached through the ODA’s ’sustainable food strategy’ which, unlike FIFA 2004, “promotes the use of local, seasonal and organic produce from  environmentally responsible sources.”  With the hindsight of being able to asses previous sporting events whose aims were solely centred on profit margins, this is an exciting revelation for the partnership between sports and sustainability.


What is so exciting about the Olympic and Paralympic games’ is that it is a celebration of natural health and wellbeing; it is an opportunity for nations to come together in a positive way and focus on the pleasures and the thrill of competing with and against one another. Of course, like the FIFA World Cup 2004, the Olympics are bound to have environmental impacts. This time however, we are seeing a focus on sustainability which hasn’t been there in the past.


The Olympics are a huge sporting event, they will have worldwide coverage and the ODA has a responsibility to act consciously and do what it can to be sustainable. Equally this is an opportunity for sporting personalities, like Neville, to use their celebrity status to raise awareness of the green issues associated with sports. As we have seen, with Sports come a whole host of benefits, and these should not be lost- however there must be an intrinsic positive attitude towards environmental sustainability incorporated into all sports, from local matches to worldwide events. Action must be taken now so that future generations can enjoy the prevalence of sports in their lives as much as we are able. Sports and Sustainability, it could just be the perfect partnership.



Picture Credit: Tratong

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