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Sport and the environment

Sport and the environment

Why sport's environmental impact cannot be ignored and what is being done about it: how can we rebuild sport after COVID-19 in a sustainable way?

Winter and summer sports alike will be impacted by climate change. Warmer winters and less snow will impact winter sports. The Tokyo 2020 marathon event was moved due to heat concerns, no snow at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and polluted waters in Rio 2016 made it unsafe to swim in the water. Another example is the FINA Open Water 10KM world cup in Fujairah, several swimmers were treated for heat exhaustion. A more recent example is the Doha marathon, “where sweltering conditions caused numerous athletes to collapse and almost half the field failed to finish.”

We need to recognize that the sports industry has an environmental footprint. Sports may be falling victim to climate change, but they are also part of the problem. All the flights of the athletes, coaching, mission staff and fans, building the venues, the energy consumed to run facilities, all the single-use plastics that will be handed out at events, and even the fireworks used during ceremonies. Everything has direct, and indirect impacts on the environment.

The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework states:  

“Sports impact on our climate is complex and can be difficult to measure depending on the size of the organization and/or event. However, most sports organisations and fans would now acknowledge that sport’s contribution to climate change – through associated travel, energy use, construction, catering, and so on – is considerable. Moreover, sports’ global interest for billions of fans, and the media coverage generated in response, provide a strong platform for the sport sector to play an exemplary role in meeting the challenge of climate change, and inspire and engage large audiences to do the same.”

Everyone has a role to play when working towards fighting for climate change. Climate change will affect all sports from the elite, international levels to the grassroot, local levels in communities around the world, and disproportionately impact countries that are less developed.

Sport environmental policies and programs

The National Hockey League Green program focuses on making their arenas using their clubs to promote more sustainable practices in our lives. Some of their projects have included planting trees, restoring water, a food recovery initiative, NHL committed to offsetting emissions associated with post-season air travel.

The IOC-Dow partnership helps the National Olympic Committee’s and International Federations measure and reduce their carbon footprints. This program will help IF’s and NOC’s that are implementing tangible action to tackle carbon emissions from their sport organisations and sporting events. 

One thing happening is the use of synthetic grass produced from sugar cane-derived plastic that will be used to create the pitch for the field hockey tournaments in Tokyo 2020. The sugar cane that is used to produce the bio-polyethylene is a material that captures carbon dioxide. This is the kind of innovation that we need to be carbon negative in all aspects of our lives. 

Tokyo 2020 has a goal of zero carbon and zero waste, using renewable energy to power the Games, eliminating edible parts of food waste, reducing packaging of materials, and their 2020 medal project where all medals are made from recycled materials.

Sport organisations need to move to a carbon negative, and eventually a carbon positive operating model. This means taking into account the facilities that are used by organisations. A National Sport Organisation or or International Sport Federation can implement policies that state they will only hold events that are held in facilities that are run by 100% renewable energy, policies that will lower food waste and single use plastics at events, and other policies that mitigate the impact of large (and small) sporting events on the environment.

Sport organisations can also find innovative ways of providing competition information. At swim competitions, they hand out heat sheets to coaches, swimmers, parents and officials. Thousands of pages over a weekend. Many times when leaving, there are piles of these sheets in the garbage bin (this paper is not recycled). How can we innovate this to be more sustainable? Can we use a QR code to share the heat sheets to whoever has a phone so we don’t have to print it out?

Many sports also have a lot of equipment that is made out of plastic (for example, swimming produces many silicon and latex swim caps, and when they break, they are tossed away.) Uniforms, and equipment are adding to waste production of teams and athletes around the world, making equipment that lasts longer, or that is recyclable is necessary. How can we upcycle these into new products? Can we make this equipment out of different materials? Sporting equipment also needs to be addressed in environmental policies.

Reconciliation with the environment means that we have to incorporate it into planning of sport events. The London 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (cover photo) is a great example of an Olympic Park increasing the green space that is available for residents close by. Sport and the environment can work together, but we have to plan accordingly.

Final thoughts

We find ourselves in a position now where we will have to rebuild after the pandemic. We have an opportunity to do it right. When the dust has settled from the pandemic and when things start opening up, we need to build sustainably. The sport industry must use this moment to change for the better. When we are using sport for development, we must think of environmental sustainability when we are implementing programs around the world. How are we using sport to uplift communities in positive ways while also doing our part to fight climate change.

We cannot continue business as usual if we want to continue enjoying sports. Climate change needs bold action and bold leadership. If we want to continue to participate in our sports we have a part to play.

David Thibodeau is a former competitive swimmer and current National Coaching Certification Program certified coach. He founded Sports for Social Impact to explore sport policy and provide insightful analysis to those working in the sport industry. He is an advocate for better inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in sports and gym classes, and has a Masters in Public Policy and Administration from Carleton University.


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Friday, July 3, 2020 - 09:33