The Olympics Have a Higher Environmental Impact Than You Might Think


Aug. 5 2021, Published 4:23 p.m. ET

The environmental impact of the Olympics
Source: Getty Images

In the past, the Olympic Games have always represented the nations of the world coming together in camaraderie and competition to celebrate athletic achievement. As wonderful as that is, as an event, the Olympics creates a significant environmental impact every time it comes to pass.

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Between travel and construction, food and fuel, lodging and litter, the Olympics is not exactly an eco-friendly undertaking. That said, the organizers of the 2020 Olympic Games (which are occurring in 2021) have made a number of efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the Olympics.

Olympic symbol at the Tokyo Games
Source: Getty Images
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What are the negative environmental impacts of the Olympics?

Typically, the environmental footprint of the Olympics is pretty high. And considering what a massive undertaking the Games themselves usually turn out to be, that's pretty understandable. In some cases, host cities have had to completely overhaul their infrastructure to support the influx of thousands of athletes and millions of spectators.

Most of the time, the combination of added energy, construction, air travel, food, and resources transform the Games into environmental disasters in their own right. According to Impactscool, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics is a prime example of the Olympics’ inherently unsustainable nature in terms of construction, illegal dumping, habitat destruction, and industrial waste spillage.

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What are the positive environmental impacts of the Olympics?

Despite the fact that the Games have often been a boon for human rights, globalization, cooperation, and peace, they have never been what one might consider a paragon of environmentalism. Even though a few have done well in terms of minimizing their environmental impact — namely the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games — none have ever been considered overtly sustainable by any means.

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According to a recent study published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo fall somewhere in the “medium” category in terms of sustainability. In fact, according to Around the Rings, the Tokyo Olympics have already collected enough “carbon credits” to make the 2021 event the world’s first carbon-negative Olympics. But what provisions of these Games have made them so eco-friendly?

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The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games have made a few efforts o be eco-conscious.

The 2021 Olympics features the slogan “Be better, together, for the people and the planet.” According to the official Tokyo Olympics website, this so-called Sustainability Concept is loosely based on the UN’s sustainable development goals, which focus on recycling and resource management, human rights, fair trade and labor, environmental stability, biodiversity, and perhaps most importantly given the current rate of climate change, minimizing the overall environmental footprint of the Games themselves.

Yet, while the Olympic committee has already done much to indicate a sincere dedication to these eco-friendly ideals, there are many who believe that it's little more than a PR stunt. According to NPR, making Olympic medals from precious metals culled from recycled electronics, building the Olympic torch out of aluminum rescued from the temporary housing shell used following the Fukushima disaster, and letting athletes sleep on cardboard beds feels a little like greenwashing.

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Nevertheless, while it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of utilizing 100 percent sustainable energy to create the extra electricity needed for the Tokyo Games, many believe that the organizers behind the 2021 Olympics are only doing the bare minimum in terms of sustainability. The sad truth is that the overall environmental cost of the Games themselves is most likely to overtake any progress made.

There is still hope that the Olympics will become more eco-friendly in the future. As long as organizers continue to follow the positive examples of energy conservation, lowering carbon emissions, recycling, and eco-consciousness, there’s no reason to believe that the Games can't become a truly sustainable affair.

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