An Olympic-Sized Problem: An Environmental Solution to the Olympic Games through Increased Regulation

By Brady Wilson*

The Olympics have repeatedly been accused of environmental unsustainability. Massive stadiums impact the water, soil, and air of the host city, the traffic and travel cause pollutants, and carbon emissions from housing thousands of athletes, staff, and spectators are significant.  Yet, there are positive outcomes as well, such as forcing environmentalism in hosts, research conducted by bidding countries, and its power to influence billions of viewers.  Inspired by the UN, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has adopted strategies to embrace environmentalism in Agenda 21, but the standards are more guidelines than rules.[i]  The solution to the Olympics’ environmental question is thus creating binding, concrete rules that constrain every host country to ensure environmentally sustainable practices at every step.  The IOC should limit the amount of construction to prepare for the Games, lengthen the preparation period, recognize the long-term consequences when awarding bids, and increase the knowledge transfer between host countries.

The Olympics are regulated by two sets of laws, those of the host country and the guidelines and agreements set forth by the IOC.  The former alone is not enough.  Countries are incentivized to ignore laws to prepare to host the Olympics on time, which has led to environmentally unfriendly practices like stadiums sitting empty in Rio,[ii] illegal dumping in Russia,[iii] and deforestation in South Korea.[iv]   The past shows that relying on host countries to abide by their own environmental regulations is often insufficient when the pressure of hosting catches up.

Therefore, the solution must focus on the second set of legislation.  Agenda 21, which is a standard inspired by the United Nations, “aims to encourage members of the Movement to play an active part in the sustainable development of our planet.” The answer to a sustainable Olympics is moving past these “basic concepts and general actions” and creating concrete, binding regulations to ensure a sustainable Games.[v]

The environmental benefits of the Olympics are often ignored but are important.  First, environmentally friendly practices are possible.[vi]  Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles are all set to become the Greenest Olympics of all time.  The environmental impact of hosting does not need to end with sports either. Tokyo, host of the 2020 Olympics, has used the Games to remove plastic from the ocean and implement a gradual ban on smoking.[vii] Secondly, the bidding process facilitates a review of cities’ environmentalism, regardless of whether they actually host the Games.[viii]  Any city interested in hosting the Olympics must create a detailed environmental plan that has an impact on the final selection.  This forces cities to ask what areas need renovations or how city improvements can be made in the next seven years.[ix]

However, the most important environmental benefit of the Games is the billions of viewers.[x]  This can be one of the largest marketing campaigns for environmental sustainability of all time.  Rio’s message of climate change during the opening ceremony in 2016 shows that the Olympics are already prepared to be a platform for environmentalism.[xi]

The above environmental benefits can be accomplished through increased regulation in order to enforce sustainability.  First, the IOC should create a standard of preexisting buildings used to compete.  Creating a floor that 80% of structures must be preexisting eliminates the environmental impact of massive construction.  Los Angeles has shown this is possible as it will be using almost entirely existing structures of local sports teams and college facilities as opposed to building new stadiums for the Games.[xii]

Next, the IOC must lengthen the period for a host city to prepare.  The current model of having seven years after winning the bid incentivizes relaxing legal requirements for the sake of having the Games prepared on time.[xiii]  Adding additional time likewise assuages the fear that the Olympics are becoming so grandiose that only autocracies, the states most willing to bend or break rules, will be able to host since additional time allows Democracies to raise funds and support the growth.[xiv]  Having host countries that are able to put on the Games without side- stepping environmental laws is a necessity to sustainability.

Third, host cities should not just be creating a sustainable bid, it should be a sustainable vision for the future.  This focus on the long-term legacy of hosting the Olympics is essential to ensuring that hosting will not result in undue damage.  For example, the Mayor of London made the “goal of reaching a 40% increase in rail and tube capacity” in the city.[xv] Bidding for and winning hosting rights created a deadline to enact city improvements that have lasted well after the 2012 Games.  Selecting only countries whose infrastructure is prepared to develop and grow will ensure that these costs are not all for naught.  It appears the IOC is currently considering this reality by investigating “post-Games monitoring of the Games legacy.”[xvi]

Finally, increasing the knowledge transfer during the bidding process must improve.[xvii]  After each Olympics, the IOC should formally debrief the environmental impact and pinpoint strategies that worked. This forces bidding countries to rely on up-to-date practices while discarding outdated ones.  Likewise, this knowledge would not only benefit the Olympics, but also other mega events as well such as the World Cup.

The current environmental regulations adopted by the IOC lack specificity and are therefore impossible to enforce.  The UN created Agenda 21 in 1992 at the United Nations Conference on Environment & Development.[xviii]  Due to its status in the UN, the IOC was encouraged to devise its own Agenda 21, but whereas the UN’s spans 350 pages, the IOC’s is a mere 26.[xix]  This prevents the IOC’s Agenda from getting into specifics and largely just focuses on suggestions.  For example, it states “A special effort must be made to encourage the best possible use of existing sports facilities.”[xx] Instead, it should be revised to not only encourage the use of existing sports facilities but the requirement of it.  Likewise, it discusses the impact of transportation as a pollution generator by urging people to use public transport, but it again fails to specify how green transportation should be implemented.[xxi]

All of these proposals are for nothing without an enforcement mechanism.  Breaking these rules must bring punishment whether it is in the form of finances or cutting the number of athletes allowed to compete at the next Games.  Without enforcement these regulations are just lip service.

Yet, enforcement of these proposals is hindered by corruption within the IOC.  For two decades the bidding process has lacked any legitimacy as countries bribe officials for hosting rights.[xxii]  The process must be respected to ensure sustainability.

The IOC recognizes the need for environmentally sustainable policies, as is clear from its statement that “the Olympic Movement accepts that it has a special responsibility to share in the implementation of this concept of sustainable development.”[xxiii] However, the only way to ensure that the Olympics can be a place of sustainability, or even inspiration, is to enact concrete regulations demanding action with tangible enforcement mechanisms.  If the IOC wants to rid the unsustainable label, it must no longer rely on the laws of host countries and instead force certain regulations on them.  The Olympics have long been the place of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” but through strict environmental regulations they could also be a model for sustainability.

*Brady R. Wilson is a Junior Editor for MJEAL and can be reached at bradyrw@umich.edu.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i] See generally International Olympic Committee Sport and Environmental Commission, Olympic Movement’s Agenda 21: Sport for Sustainable Development (1999).

[ii] See, e.g., Rio’s Olympic Venues, Six Months On – in pictures, The Guardian,  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/gallery/2017/feb/10/rios-olympic-venues-six-months-on-in-pictures.

[iii] See, e.g., David M. Herszenhorn, Putin’s Vision of Olympic Glory Meets a More Earthbound Reality in Sochi, The New York Times,  https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/07/world/europe/putins-vision-of-olympic-glory-meets-reality-in-sochi.html?module=inline.

[iv] See, e.g., Justin McCurry and Emma Howard, Olympic Organizers Destroy ‘Sacred’ South Korean Forest to Create Ski Run, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/16/olympic-organisers-destroy-sacred-south-korean-forest-to-create-ski-run.

[v] International Olympic Committee, supra note 1.

[vi] See generally Sustainability, Tokyo 2020, https://tokyo2020.org/en/games/sustainability/. and Adam Stone, Paris Promises to Host the Greenest Olympics Ever, FutureStructure (Feb 24, 2017), http://www.govtech.com/fs/Paris-olympics.html.

[vii] See Jack Tarrant, Tokyo Focuses on Environment Two Years out from Olympics, Reuters (July 23, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-2020-tokyo-governor/tokyo-focuses-on-environment-two-years-out-from-olympics-idUSKBN1KD0Y0.

[viii] See John Rennie Short, And the winner is Rio, or is it Chicago?, Considered Ranting (Oct. 2, 2009) http://johnrennieshort.blogspot.com/2009/10/and-winner-is-rio-or-is-it-chicago.html.

[ix] Id.

[x] See generally Number of Olympic Games TV Viewers Worldwide from 2002 to 2016, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/287966/olympic-games-tv-viewership-worldwide/ (last visited March 5, 2019).

[xi] See, e.g., Brady Dennis, In Olympics Opening Ceremony, Brazil Goes Big on Climate Change, Wash. Post (Aug. 4, 2018) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/08/05/in-olympics-opening-ceremony-brazil-goes-big-on-climate-change/?utm_term=.bfacec8bc1d1.

[xii] See generally Elijah Chiland, LA 2028 Olympics: Mapping the Sites of the Los Angeles Summer Games, Curbed https://la.curbed.com/maps/olympics-map-los-angeles-2028-games-locations (last visisted March 5, 2019)

[xiii] See, e.g., Labor Laws broken at Rio Olympic venues, USA Today (Dec. 6 2014) https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2014/12/06/labor-laws-broken-at-rio-olympic-venues/20002795/; see also Peter Walker, Dutch Union Suing Fifa Over ‘Modern Slavery’ at Qatar 2022 World Cup Sites in Landmark Case, Independent (Oct 22, 2016) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/fifa-qatar-world-cup-2022-migrants-dutch-union-slavery-fnv-bangladesh-court-legal-action-a7356191.html.

[xiv] See generally Thomas  Könecke & Michiel de Nooij, The IOC and Olympic Bids from Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes – A Socioeconomic Analysis and Strategic Insights, Current Issues in Sport Science, Dec. 2017 at 9. (2017).

[xv] Shalini Samuel & Wendy Stubbs, Green Olympics, Green Legacies? An exploration of the environmental legacies of the Olympic Games, Int. Rev. Soc. of Sport, 484, 485-504 (2012).

[xvi] International Olympic Committee, IOC Sustainability Strategy: Executive Summary (2017).

[xvii] Samuel & Stubbs, supra note 15.

[xviii] See generally United Nations Conference on Environment & Development Rio de Janerio, Brazil, Agenda 21, (1992).

[xix] Id.; International Olympic Committee, supra note 15.

[xx] International Olympic Committee, supra note 15.

[xxi] Id.

[xxii] See, e.g., Tokyo Olympic Games corruption claims bring scandal back to the IOC, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/may/11/tokyo-olympic-games-2020-ioc-international-olympic-committee-corruption-bid-scandal; IOC is ‘doing nothing’ about corruption crisis, says senior official Pound, https://www.bbc.com/sport/olympics/41248774.

[xxiii] Id.

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