Since the late 1800s, when modern sports and rivalries revitalized the ancient tradition, the summer Olympics have remained a quadrennial tradition. Since COVID-19 threw last year’s events off schedule, the world is preparing for another round of competition in Tokyo.
Transporting players and supporters from around the world to cities hosting Olympic games has a massive carbon footprint; the 2021 London Olympics, for example, had an estimated carbon footprint of over 400 thousand tonnes of CO2. Building brand-new stadiums every few years that, with very few exceptions, go unused after the games are also incredibly wasteful. When all of the money spent on infrastructure was factored in, the 2016 Rio Olympics produced a stunning 3.6 million tonnes of carbon. Eerie listicles of deteriorating stadiums, including Rio’s, fill the internet with expensive examples of the hundreds of millions of dollars in labor and resources wasted on just one site.
There have been proponents of having only one Olympic venue for as long as the games have existed. In 1896, the year of the first modern Olympic games, King George of Greece gave a speech in which he offered to host the games permanently. Some countries, such as the United States, consented, while others, such as Pierre de Coubertin, the man who brought the modern Olympics back to life, we’re concerned that it would make the games too Hellenistic and harm the international spirit of the event. John Rennie Short, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, has already spoken about the environmental and financial advantages of holding the games in one place.
“There was a sense that the cost of holding the games was becoming increasingly astronomical… “The prices were rising, the environmental impact was increasing, and you were hauling thousands of players and trainers,” he explains. “There is a massive carbon footprint.”
The Pyeongchang organizing committee calculated that the winter games would emit around 1.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is more than the island of Barbados produces in a year, according to a 2018 New York Times report. Transporting and housing the athletes and spectators would account for a third of the emissions.
“[The argument] is always that ‘this is fantastic for the city, we’ll receive new infrastructure….’ Short stated, “We’ll make money.” “However, the [International Olympic Committee] rarely covers the [financial] costs of the games.”
Many big towns have wasted millions of dollars hosting the games, money that might be used to help cities transition to renewable energy to meet expanding commitments to achieve net-zero carbon targets.
More environmental oversight could result from holding the Olympics in a single site, especially for countries that do not take the climate and environmental issues seriously. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were severely panned for having a harmful influence on the region’s ecosystem. According to Time Magazine, the Russian government assured members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the games would be “zero waste.” Unfortunately, the games did not live up to expectations.
Construction in the years leading up to 2014 was riddled with illegal rubbish dumping, limiting local water availability, and disturbing regional wildlife migration routes. The major event took place in Sochi National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site with the highest biodiversity in Russia.
“Sustainability is one of the IOC’s foundations. But you have to keep an eye on the IOC and what they say and do,” he remarked. “Sochi was a colossal failure.”
The IOC does have a comprehensive Sustainability Strategy, which includes a section on material reuse and carbon offsets. However, unused old Olympic stadium skeletons may be found throughout the world, and the material inside is decaying rather than being reused for housing or other huge events.
Short stated that having a single location that is thoroughly reviewed with engineers and the involvement of many conservation groups might help prevent future environmental disasters. It would be easier to maintain quality control and build or remove structures if there was a single stadium. Old buildings could potentially be used for various purposes in the future. However, having only one location would be contingent on the IOC’s approval, outside environmental and economic scrutiny, and a country’s willingness to devote space for an Olympic center.
Short believes that one day it will be a possibility and that the time and work put into organizing a single Olympic town will be worthwhile.
“If you had an Olympic-sized Greek island… the place would be a site for international events involving everything from math competitions to folklore to teaching young athletes from poorer countries,” Short proposed. “This throwaway package attitude is coming to an end with the Olympic Games. It just seems absurd in this day and age to build this stadium and then move on.”