Protecting our planet: Sports mega-events
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How can sport be part of the solution? Part four of this series considers how sports mega-events can mitigate their negative impact on the environment and contribute to climate action.

Between sport mega-events, league finals, and international competitions there’s a major sporting event going on every month – from the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Wimbledon to the African Cup of Nations and the Cricket World Cup. Naturally these are exciting and a cause for celebration (particularly for the winners), but they also hold the potential to leave a mushroom cloud of damage to the environment through carbon emissions and waste produced. So how can we maximise the environmental sustainability of such major sporting events?

In 2016, the UEFA European Championships in France pledged to use scientific methodology to measure and report the environmental impact of the tournament, which was the first time a mega-event would go beyond measuring just the carbon emissions. UEFA measured the tournament’s impact on air pollution, human health and biodiversity. UEFA’s Euro 2016 sustainability strategy included:

  • Procedures to ensure sustainable sourcing of products and services: that included a local sourcing strategy that meant all service providers and 71% of products were sourced from Europe to minimise import and travel emissions
  • Three of the four new stadiums had ecological designs: the Stade de Nice, for example, was built with 4,000m3 of locally supplied wood – a material that stores carbon and requires low amounts of energy to process the raw material – and a transparent roof for natural lighting
  • The “Foot for food” initiative: UEFA partnered with Banques Alimentaires and FondaCtion du Football to redistribute 10 tonnes of surplus food to those in need
  • Reuse and recycling of materials: following the event, unused or dismantled materials, such as carpets and furniture, were returned or donated. Sports equipment, such as goals, benches and bibs, were donated to local clubs and stadiums
  • An eco-calculator: UEFA included this in its fan guide app, allowing spectators to calculate the carbon footprint of their travel to the tournament, with the opportunity to offset their emissions. It also included a practical tool to facilitate car and taxi sharing between fans
  • Read the full UEFA Euro 2016 sustainability report

It is becoming more common for large sporting events to integrate initiatives for environmental sustainability. Other examples include:

  • The 2017 U23 European Athletics Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, incentivised spectators to use eco-friendly transport: upon presenting a ticket for public transport that had been validated in the previous hour, spectators could get a day entrance ticket for half price. Those who had pre-purchased tickets to the athletics could use public transport for free, and those arriving by bicycle could get a 50% discount on tickets
  • The French Tennis Federation has made 15 environmental commitments. Roland-Garros, the home of the French Open, now runs on 100% clean energy. Bee hives have been installed on the roof of the venue’s Club des Loges, supplying the tournament with its own honey
  • The 2019 London Marathon implemented a closed loop recycling system for plastic bottles in four of the city’s boroughs (meaning the bottles were recycled with little material lost or waste created). Discarded clothes along the route were collected for reuse and recycling, and all branding material was reused or recycled into industrial rags

Sustainability needs to be integrated into the core of the planning, organisation and legacy of sporting events to minimise their environmental impact. Mega-events are one-off events, so each one requires its own strategy. These examples, among others, demonstrate the progress made in the past 15 years to improve environmental sustainability. But the efforts need to grow faster and expand throughout the sports world to match the pace of the climate crisis and win the race to save our planet. 

So how can this approach be extended to the sporting events that take place throughout the year – matches in a league for example?