Olympics: on Game-changers and Changing the Sustainability Game

Door Cécile,
op 22 januari 2015

Imagine. Just imagine you’re watching the 2024 Olympics. Not only are all the athletes proudly wearing jerseys made from recycled ocean plastic, the opening ceremony is hosted in a stadium that is fully demountable and whose energy is being produced through the newest generation of solar panels – which after the Games will supply the energy to the city, immediately increasing the percentage of renewable energy production by 20%.

And then imagine all the people watching the Games on TV: future bidding cities wanting to outclass 2024’s sustainability performance, creating a competition not to build the next superlative in terms of size but in terms of sustainability; communities in rapidly developing countries who are inspired by what constructive things can be done with ‘waste’, completely shifting their paradigm in terms of the value of resources.

Imagine that could become reality.

A lot of people ask why I’m so dedicated to creating sustainable Olympic Games. Frankly, part of me is surprised that the Olympics aren’t that sustainable yet. But more importantly, I’m convinced that the Olympics have the power to spread a message much larger than itself – to bring a positive sustainability mindset that is necessary if we want to create global change. Considering we’re using 1.6 planets worth of resources according to today’s ‘The World Counts’ figures, I’d say we’re in dire need of global change.

Luckily we enter 2015 with a much needed breath of fresh Olympic air – as the month of December saw Thomas Bach’s forty recommendations for a rejuvenated Olympic movement passed unanimously, including two clear recommendations regarding the sustainability of the Games. Two things keep me going however: (1) policy does not necessarily generate real change; and (2) that the Olympic movement has the power to spread a global message so much larger than itself. Imagine all the positivity, creativity and innovation that the Olympics could ignite…

The 2012 London Olympics boasted about having a global reach of four billion spectators. If we narrow that down to the figures we have at hand – 90% of the UK population viewed BBC’s Olympic coverage, and 1.5% of that same UK population started participating in sports after the games. I’m certain that every sustainability professional I know would be ecstatic to have not only that widespread coverage and interest, but more importantly such a significant part of the population actually engaging in the topic of sustainability. And then extrapolate that to a global level – that’s 105 million people working on sustainability!

Luckily the juicy love affair between sustainability and the Olympics has lasted for over two decades. They got involved long before sustainability was an ‘adult’ topic, and started their formal partnership as far back as 1994. The love affair didn’t only bring sustainability into the policy of the Games, but also allowed several noteworthy initiatives such as Eco-friendly Olympic villages (Sydney 2000), LEED silver certificates (Vancouver 2010) and zero-waste games (London 2012) to arise. And even for the upcoming host cities such as Tokyo, we see some amazing sustainability promises in terms of energy efficiency and sustainable energy.

Although I applaud Tokyo’s dream of realizing the eco-Olympics, I’d like to lure Tokyo and bidding cities such as Beijing, Almaty, Boston and Rome into the resources domain of sustainability a bit more… Although I understand the focus on energy efficiency with today’s general dominance of the carbon-based-sustainability thinking, it makes little sense when posed onto Olympic venues. The general argument for the often high investments that accompany sustainable energy or energy efficiency measures is that the measures will generate returns in the long-term. However with many stadiums and venues left vacant after the Olympics, one can question whether the high investments will indeed generate the necessary returns, and such if they make sufficient sense. If we shift the sustainability thinking into the resources domain, topics such as using waste (or renewables!) as resources, flexibility, modular design and long-term use become increasingly interesting topics.

The Olympic movement can draw inspiration from their very own sports industry where companies such as Puma and Nike are creating waves of sustainability; not only doing less bad but doing good. Puma’s environmental profit and loss accounts are an encouragement to anyone in the sustainability domain, bringing the true costs of business to the balance sheet. The 2010 World Cup had all Nike sponsored teams ‘sporting’ jerseys from recycled PET bottles, and is taking serious strides to integrate recycled rubber from old sneakers back into their shoes with their Regrind initiative.

And although many might argue that these sports gear companies still have a lot to make up for after the serious sweatshop allegations that arose less than a decade ago, I would pose that they are an inspiration precisely for that reason. The resilience these companies have shown to come back from severe (and deserved) judgment and literally become game-changers within their industry (with their ‘competitors’ focusing mainly on energy efficiency) is something that the Olympics could learn from after all the criticism of the costs spiraling out of control (as well as unkept sustainability promises).

As in sports, real game changers don’t ‘walk the line’ but take radical plunges into the unknown, all in their pursuit of being world-class. Take for example Dick Fosbury who revolutionized high jumping with the ‘Fosbury flop’ and went on to win the event at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, or Kosuke Kitajima who boldly introduced the dolphin kick coming off of each wall in the 100m breaststroke race at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Both athletes will be remembered (perhaps bitterly by their competitors) as true game changers, but they did bring innovation to their field of sports.

Although I’m happy with the unanimous passing of Bach’s recommendations, I also acknowledge that future host- and bidding cities might not know where to start. It’s easy to walk the line and incrementally overtake past sustainability performances. However that attitude isn’t going to get us the world-class game changers that will inspire 105 million individual. So this is my appeal for the Dick Fosbury’s and Kosuke Kitajima’s of the bidding cities to stand up; my appeal to everyone reading this to work together to use the buzz and excitement of the Olympics to create a positive sustainability movement and create something tremendous. Let’s not just create legacy, let’s sustain it.

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