Despite increased attention and policies meant to make the Olympic Games an exemplar of sustainability across all facets of construction, development and operations, the most sustainable Olympic Games since 1992 were in Salt Lake City in 2002, and have declined in sustainability performance subsequently, according to a paper published in Nature Sustainability.
The Olympic Games are the most watched and most expensive events on Earth. Half the world’s population is expected to see coverage of the Tokyo Olympics which were delayed one year by the pandemic. This summer’s Olympics are projected to cost between US$12 and 28 billion, reflecting a trend in large expenditures. Yet while the Olympic Games present a chance to pioneer necessary sustainability transformations, no systemic evaluation of the Games’ sustainability has hitherto existed.
Martin Müller and colleagues analysed 16 Summer and Winter Olympics from 1992 to the upcoming Tokyo Games and measured how well each city performed in economic, social and ecological sustainability. They found that across all 16 editions, the average performance of an Olympic Games is 48 out of 100 points according to their index, a ‘medium’ grade in their estimation. This reflects poor scores for budget balance as well as high scores for the legacy and long-term viability of venues and infrastructure after the Olympics end. Salt Lake City 2002 and Barcelona 1992 were the highest scoring Winter and Summer Olympics, respectively, and the Summer and Winter Games from 1992 to 2008 had significantly higher scores than those following Vancouver 2010, indicating that sustainability performance has declined over time. Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 had the lowest scores yet for Winter and Summer Games, respectively.
The authors recommend a number of actions to improve Olympic sustainability, including a reduction in the number of in-person spectators in order to reduce venue size, rotating the Olympics around a set list of cities to reuse venues and infrastructure, and setting up an independent body to monitor and enforce sustainability standards for Olympic Games and host cities.
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