With the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games happening in just a couple of days and the massive heat waves we are currently experiencing in the western United States, I figured this was perfect timing to write about a trillion dollar industry globally, that impacts billions of people around the world. Also, my background in sustainability stemmed from my sports and health background.
Sports are incredible for many reasons. They unite us during tough times (even with friendly, and sometimes intense rivalries), they teach us so many important life lessons like discipline, adversity, and resiliency, and they give us hope for our futures, and most importantly, they inspire us to grow and be better and stronger physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I’ve been a competitive athlete for most of my life. From starting gymnastics at the age of three to competitively diving at the collegiate level and beyond, sports have always impacted my life. They have shaped the person I have become, they taught me how to overcome some of the most difficult periods of my life, and they also really instilled a passion for the environment and sustainability. I guess growing up kicking a soccer ball in the middle of the Arizona summer really makes you aware of how your body reacts to the physical environment.
I continued my journey in sports as a youth coach, marketing assistant, and sport management graduate student. Shaping the youth for the future and teaching them lessons about overcoming obstacles is how they will learn to fight climate change. Seeing that on average, the amount of waste one college football game generates is 50 to 100 tons is horrifying (Menjivar, n.d.). However, seeing how much influence a Megan Rapinoe, Simone Biles, or Lebron James have is massive (millions of followers) and impactful. So every time someone asks me how and why sports matter, just think about how much energy is being used to power up Empower Field at Mile High (and how close the Broncos’ stadium is to highly polluted, lower-income neighborhoods). I wrote an entire paper on the destruction of Kaliningrad, Russia’s last natural wetland from a soccer stadium that hasn’t profited and was only built for the 2018 World Cup. Stadiums need a lot of resources to be built and maintained. Sports are wasteful, attract crowds by the thousands, which equals ever more waste, but are also impactful.
After the Black Lives Matters protests erupted in the summer of 2020, hundreds of athletes showed their support. Athletes like Colin Kaepernick risked their careers to show Americans that social justice matters. The NBA, NHL, NFL, USWNT, and many other organizations all garnered BLM across jerseys, helmets, arenas, and cleats. If sports had that much influence on one social justice issue, imagine how much influence they could have speaking about climate change (slowly and maturely as they are currently doing). We need a Tom Brady turned Greta Thunberg posting on social media about climate, endorsing sustainable brands only, putting their money towards environmental organizations, and showing people how to live sustainably (I can imagine it’s quite difficult with the multi-million dollar mansions). We also need coaches, managers, owners, developers, fans, and anyone else involved in sport professionally or as a spectator mindful of the impact they are having every time a fan is banned from bringing a reusable water bottle into an arena.
Predominantly, sporting events are spectacle and mass money producers. Fans get joy from going to games, athletes feel a sense of accomplishment every time they win a game or medal, and most importantly for them, sponsors and owners are generating millions and millions of dollars. Unfortunately, a lot of joy has been taken out of sports because of money, whether it’s in the professional or amateur arenas. Athletes have to pay to play soccer in this country; traveling costs for sports like gymnastics and diving are high because there aren’t many local teams to compete against; equipment for golf and tennis have a high price tag. Many Olympic sports exclude many minorities and lower-income people, whereas football and basketball heavily rely on African-Americans because wealthy white men can profit off of their athletic abilities. In fact, there are only two African American head coaches in the NFL. There is a major underrepresentation of women in management and executive positions. And this is all relevant to climate because those who are underrepresented are impacted the most by climate change.
For the past few years, sports have started to care more about sustainability and the impact a major event has on the environment. Stadiums are moving towards LEED standards, with Mercedes-Benz Stadium being the first LEED Platinum stadium in the country and modeling other facilities. Major brands like Nike and Adidas have made huge strides towards circularity and carbon neutrality in their production. Younger athletes in the spotlight are more aware of the issues, so they are speaking out and endorsing brands that align with environmental values. Some examples of what athletes are doing are:
- The former Atlanta Falcons fullback created the Ovie Mughelli Foundation to address the world’s sustainability and STEM crisis. Through his foundation he develops technology and programs that educate future sustainability leaders and help future generations become STEM professionals by promoting eco consciousness.
- Ovie has worked with sustainability leaders globally, such as Al Gore, Ted Turner, and Van Jones. He had developed partnerships with the EPA, NRDC, Sierra Club, Green Sports Alliance, NEXUS, and served on the board with the U.S. Green Building Council.
- The Olympic Gold Medal Snowboarder joined Protect Our Winters (POW) with more than 140 professional athletes, scientists, and creatives to build awareness on climate change.
- She is advocating for other snow-sport athletes who highly depend on stable winters for their sports.
- She is a Burton athlete, and the company is a huge advocator of climate action.
- The Chicago Bulls player collaborated with the Finnish renewable company Neste and is a part of the company’s #DontChoke campaign, which is a call to action for individuals to do their share in battling climate change.
- As part of Markkanen’s campaign, he has stopped consuming red meat as a step towards minimizing his carbon footprint.
- Retired NHL player teamed up with Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, to create the NHL Players’ Association Carbon Neutral Challenge, which encourages players to offset carbon emissions generated by their frequent travel and other negative impacts caused professional sports by purchasing carbon credits.
- Redbull high diver Ellie Smart founded the Clean Cliffs Project, which is an organization that educates communities to prevent plastic pollution. When they travel to different countries for competitions, they will do cleanups around their competition sites and go to local schools to educate students about the dangers of single-use plastics.
For the first time ever, an Olympic event has a full sustainability plan, with the goal of mitigating as much as possible. Tokyo 2020’s layout includes:
The Tokyo Games set five main sustainability themes, which Tokyo 2020, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and the Government of Japan and other delivery partners work on in preparations for and operations of the Games. The Games will use a Sustainable Sourcing Code as a tool to ensure sustainability throughout the supply chains of products and services Tokyo 2020 procures as well as licensed products:
- Climate Change
- We will promote energy savings and use of renewable energy as much as possible “Towards Zero Carbon”.
- Resource Management
- Through 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle), we aim to “Zero Wasting”.
- Natural Environment and Biodiversity
- We will contribute to the realization of “City within Nature/Nature within the City”.
- Human Rights, Labour, and Fair Business Practice
- We will operate the Games in accordance with the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
- Involvement, Cooperation, and Communications (Engagement)
- Through the participation and collaboration of entire society, we will create the Games which open to everyone. (Change due to COVID, there will be no spectators).
- Sustainable Sourcing Code
- We have devised the Sustainable Sourcing Code for products and services to be procured as well as licensed products (Tokyo, 2020).
Please note that some changes have occurred with the Tokyo Games due to the pandemic. However, many of the practices and principles of designing the facilities and implementing the events remain the same. On the bright side, no spectators means very little waste.
Tokyo will hopefully be a model for future Olympic Games. FIFA will have to get their human rights issues sorted out, as they have caused a lot of humanitarian and environmental problems in past events (ex: Qatar 2022). The more fans and athletes can push for environmental and social justice, the more sport can influence everyday people to make individual changes and become more conscious of their unsustainable habits. Maybe all it takes is a Tiger Woods persona to push the environment hard on professional and amateur sport organizations.
Menjivar, J. (N.d.) 8 Ways to Green Your Football Season. Do Something. https://www.dosomething.org/us/articles/8-ways-to-green-your-football-season
Tokyo 2020 Sustainability. (2020). Tokyo 2020. https://olympics.com/tokyo-2020/en/games/sustainability/