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An ancient tradition, the Olympic Games today bring together thousands of athletes every four years. Facing the climate emergency, we have evaluated their environmental impact on a global and local scale. For these international events, the challenge is to reinvent themselves towards more sustainability.

Hardship is the source of creativity

Some people want it to happen, some wish it would happen, others make it happen. – Michael Jordan’s words are up to date. Or as the title suggests, it is the willpower and character that impulse change and creates real impact.

The essence of sport is to overcome difficulties, the full consciousness of the effort and the optimization of the available resources. In other words, playing sports is more than a game, it is in some way a short version of primitive life. Add the social dimension to it and you get a more complete picture of these min-episodes of existence!

running open air connect to nature

The present health crisis had a significant impact on sports and related sport events. For the former, the gatherings and interactions being brought to a complete stop on a global scale. And for the latter, major professional events have continued, but mainly without public. This increased distance, between individuals and the practice or the professional athletes has progressively encouraged regular persons to more solo outdoor activities. Consequently, leading to higher connection to nature and to the “local environmental context”.

The health situation has recently evolved, positively, in most parts of the world. Most people longing for return to “normal” are optimistic. Nevertheless, there seems to be some fundamental change drivers that are currently shifting. Thanks to the “local connection” and rediscovery of immediate geographical context, there is increasing emphasis on the connection to nature and biodiversity. This does not necessarily translate to preservation, or radical behavioral changes, but rather an increased understanding and knowledge of the neighboring environment.

From Socio-economic to sustainability

The question regarding the economic relevance of hosting big sports events, like the Olympics/Paralympics has been on the table for number of years now. The International Olympics Committee officials have usually argued that while the immediate return on investment resulting from ticket sales is not necessarily positive, the tremendous favorable image hosting the games triggers is worth it. Moreover, the continuous use of the infrastructures by the local communities usually closes the debate to the benefit of the advocates of hosting the games.

Now the increasing concerns regarding the state of the environment, and the consolidated link to the local environment, is currently adding a new variable to the viability of hosting the games formula. A clear shift from socio-economic matters to global sustainability. Where in addition to the economic or social questions, the local population is adding the environmental one. Is it relevant, in a world of increased climate variability to add pressure through planetary global events? In this article we are exploring this question from two perspectives, global and local.

Environmental impact of transporting athletes

It is common to celebrate the location hosting the games. It is a great opportunity to discover new cultures, update our view of the hosts, understand social codes and so on. It is an opportunity to celebrate cultural diversity in all its richness. Setting aside the obvious cultural benefits, the rotation between continents to host the Olympics imposes a key environmental question. The actual physical distance between the place of residence and the host city directly translates to increased emissions to transport material, athletes, referees, and the public longing to cheer their champions.

We were thus curious to assess the environmental impact of transporting the athletes (and only the athletes) to the competition venue in Tokyo, Japan. We compared it to the last edition in Rio de Janeiro (2016). For the sake of comparison, we decided to we simulate the same number of athletes as Rio (with the caveat that the number of participants from Brazil is expected to be lower).
The result is shown in the following animation where the dot size in each country is proportional to its environmental impact.

Environmental impact of the transportation of the athletes of the Olympic Games

While for African and European countries the change from Rio to Tokyo is not significant, our simulation shows that the simple fact of changing the venue has more than a 10% change on the environmental footprint (equivalent CO2 emissions from air travel). A significant change in a world where we need to create more with less.

Environmental impact of urbanization

While increasing initiatives are spurring around the globe to define what cities are and how to integrate more nature in cities, the question related to changes in land use within cities is crucial. The sustainable development guidelines strongly emphasize that developments in cities follows a vertical pattern rather than a horizontal one. Meaning, to keep as much soil unchanged as possible, and strive to increase nature’s share of the urban space.

A central question would then be, is it reasonable from an environmental perspective to convert 65000 m2 of open-air gardens within Tokyo, one of the most populated cities in the world, into an aquatic stadium? Usually when trying to image deforestation, we refer to a rate of 1 football pitch every 6 seconds. Using the same reference, nature in Tokyo lost 9 football pitches for the construction aquatic center. This type of developments can be very efficiently monitored using space assets by simple observations (it can also be automated, but these are technical details that we can present in later articles)

before and after construction impact on natural areas in cities
Tokyo 2020 Aquatic Stadium 2012 © Maxar technologies
before and after construction impact on natural areas in cities
Tokyo 2020 Aquatic Stadium 2021 © Maxar technologies

We did not go in the assessment of all the construction sites for the Olympics/Paralympics games, but we know for example that at least 8 new venues have caused significant soil artificialization, which means that nature lost land for their creation. Using satellite earth observation data we are able to automatically map land cover changes over time. For example, taking a look at the Tokyo region below, we see that natural surfaces are receding. Forests, herbaceous or sparse vegetation, and cropland have been all loosing points, while built up areas increased (almost 1%) and water bodies increased (reflecting loss in land natural areas).

Tokyo area land cover in 2015 © Copernicus
Tokyo area land cover in 2019 © Copernicus
Environmental impact of the Olympic Games on the land of Tokyo
Land classification of the Tokyo area © Copernicus

The land classification map shows this intense match between nature in the west corner and manmade structures in the east corner. The eastern urban areas of the Tokyo region have been progressively devouring the natural habitats and the forests in the west. Imposing an increased human footprint and consumption of natural areas. The trend follows the increase population pressure, yet this will surely need to change in the coming years to mitigate for climate change and leave the required space for nature to win back its rights.

Back to Jordan’s words, others make it happen, following the health crisis, the Japanese people stood up against the organization of the games by fears over increased spread of the virus. First the games were delayed and finally after pressure from the International Olympics Committee on the Japanese government, the games will be held without public presence. A compromise in these times of high uncertainty due to the health situation. A rather hard compromise, especially for the Japanese, who loose one of the most positive effects of organizing the games, visibility. Nonetheless, we are heading in this direction.

We have seen little progress in the organization of sports events behind closed doors. Some progress from the NBA for example showed possibilities for public cheering from the comfort of their sofa at key games. Would this become the norm? Would hardship, this time related to the global climate change and the importance of climate preservation, push us in exploring new ways to interact with the athletes and create this magical stadium atmosphere?

We hope that we will be among the “others” who will contribute to making it happen. “Others” who are willing to explore new frontiers, new possibilities to find the equilibrium between the three sustainability pillars, social, economic, and environmental benefits.

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