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The environmental impact of sporting events – is it worth it?

Written by Guest Author · 2 min read >

At a time when public and private agencies recognise the importance of sustainable development, the environmental impact of mega sporting events such as The World Cup and Olympic Games are commanding increasing attention. However, despite event sponsors often pointing out the importance of environmental and socio-economic components, the environmental impact of events is still difficult to assess, being complex and often occurring over extended periods of time.

The 2014 Winter Olympic Games, held in and around the Russian city of Sochi, are said to be the most expensive Games in the history of the Winter Olympics, costing an estimated $55 billion – 4.5 times more than projected.

Arguably, they are also the Games that have had the biggest impact on the surrounding environment. A massive sign near the Olympic Park bearing the words “Ornithological Park” warns visitors that it is a protected area and it is prohibited to disturb the wildlife. Yet, on all sides it’s surrounded by residential blocks built to host athletes and journalists, that now stand derelict and abandoned.

What is known as the Imeretinskaya Lowland quickly turned into a huge construction site after the announcement that Russia will have their chance to host the Winter Games. For years inhabitants of Sochi and the surrounding areas had to cope with constant noise, traffic jams, dust, electricity cuts and lack of tap water. Not only is the natural environment a victim, but the residential environment suffers due to the build-up before, and subsequent abandonment after, a mega event.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will no doubt be filled with surprises during the Games, but we already know there will be a substantial environmental toll. One may wonder where the snow will come from for a winter event in a city and region that has little snowfall. Many key events needing altitude, such as skiing and snowboarding, will be held up to 100 miles away, with some taking place on the edge of the Gobi Desert, where snowfall rarely exceeds 10 inches.

The snow for the Beijing Winter Olympics Games, like much of the snow for the Sochi Games, will come from water drawn from lakes and streams, super-cooled into ice crystals and then shot from a cannon. The environmental impact in a region sensitive to desertification could be profound and long-lasting. The choice of Beijing, and revelations of how poor water quality in Rio may have been a hazard to competitors, highlight the environmental impacts of the Games.

Brazil’s World Cup-Olympics doubleheader provided no shortage of reasons to declare both a success: tourist numbers were reasonably high (in excess of the 500,000 target, according to the government), sales goals were reached, the infrastructure remained standing, Zika Virus fears proved unfounded and Brazil won more medals than at any previous Games.

But there were also plenty of evidence for critics who say the bloated mega-event caused more harm than good. Massive spending on stadiums at a time when the government could barely afford fair wages for doctors and teachers, a heavy security presence that protected rich foreigners at the expense of poor residents, dismal crowds suggested most locals were uninterested in most sports, and massive inequality between the $900 a day payments to International Olympic Committee executives and the $12 a day wages of cleaners in the Olympic village makes an observer wonder if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

The awareness of environmental issues linked to mega-events and the necessity to manage resources in a sustainable way, with regard to the natural environment and the quality of life for host residents, has grown considerably over the last two decades. This has led to the publication of guidelines such as the “Guide to Sport, Environment and Sustainable Development” by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the “Sustainable Sport and Event Toolkit” by AISTS.

Despite this progress made to date, there certainly is room for improvement and it is imperative that event organisers continue to proactively seek new ways to sustainably manage mega sporting events.

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