I’ve always been fascinated between the not-so-self-explanatory yet almost logical connection there is between sports and sustainability. On the one hand it seems that most athletes have a deeper understanding of and commitment to sustainability; on the other hand I find that most sustainability professionals I meet often have an almost athletic-mindset, approach and commitment to improving the state of the world. And although I can observe many similarities between the mindset of athletes and sustainability professionals – the sustainability of sports often leaves me pondering…
…and that pondering recently brought me to the net sustainability of the Olympics, by far my favorite sporting event. In my humble opinion, Pierre de Coubertin “got it all right” when he laid the foundations for the modern Olympic games in 1894; posing that the Olympics are about more than sports, but can act as a vehicle to improve society. Fast forward 120 years, and how could we have drifted that far from de Coubertin’s vision and “gotten it all wrong”? Not only have the costs of hosting the games spiraled out of control averaging almost $30 billion over the past four games (summer and winter), but in no way or form are those millions being spent towards “improving society” or significant societal problems such as environmental sustainability.
Instead, we’re spending these billions on the construction of new venues which are used for a period of six weeks in total. I remember my swim coach used to say: pain is temporary, but pride is forever; but somehow the converse seems true for these venues. The (economic) pain lasts for an awfully long time, yet the pride is temporary in nature. And in several cities – Athens, Beijing and even Sochi – We’re left with vacant and abandoned venues, faint reminders of what used to be “great”.
Imagine if athletes treated their bodies the way host cities treat their venues… In fact it’s precisely there where this deep underlying conviction that sports and sustainability are inextricably intertwined arises. Athletes tend to master their state of human nature, having exemplary physical fitness and endurance whilst consistently balancing their personal energy levels. Within their own ecosystem of the self, athletes are aware of what they need in order to perform at the highest level, and will use no more (and no less). Athletes focus on what is abundant rather than what is scarce, and essentially compete at a level of conscious consumption. And it’s just this conscious consumption that has become so central in today’s sustainability discussions, where the trend of rising population levels and increasingly scarce resources are diverging rapidly – without a conscious approach to resources and consumption, we’re lost.
Fortunately, this blog is written in the wake of discussions concerning the future of the Olympic movement, as the IOC itself has realized that the current form of Olympism is unsustainable. Two of Thomas Bach’s forty recommendations for the future of the Olympic Movement as presented on November 18th embrace environmental sustainability, and I personally have good hopes of these recommendations being adopted in policies at the IOC conference on December 8th and 9th.
However, I’d like to be a bit bolder and pose that the IOC has the potential to accelerate a change that reaches further than sports alone – just as Pierre de Coubertin intended it to. The Olympic movement has the ability to spread a global message – in this case about a sustainability – in a fun and almost celebratory manner. This might seem futile to some, but those working in the sustainability domain will recognize that mainstream sustainability thinking is still focused on regulation, policies, “thou shalt”, let’s call it “finger wagging” sustainability… And this type of thinking is not going to bring about societal change, or win you an Olympic medal.
Instead, we need a sustainability movement that is focused on fun, excitement, perhaps even competition but most important of all innovation. Although participation may be more important than winning, we don’t have an Olympic movement without winners. It might be painful for the first bidding city to change the tide of sustainability thinking and build upon existing structures, but I’m certain that the pride and legacy will last forever.