Can the Olympics be Sustainable?

Can the Olympics be Sustainable?

With the 2018 Winter Olympics in the rearview mirror, the elite athletes who competed and their dedicated fans have returned home. Some will be basking in the glory of new Olympic medals and career-launching wins, while others may be coping with defeat or injuries. But what about the communities that host them, and the impact to their residents and environment once everyone has left?

West Monroe’s sustainability team helps our clients gain business value through operational sustainability programs, and we were curious how the Olympics approached sustainability. Inevitably, host cities face controversy when it comes to the economic and environmental impact of the games. Is sustainability a path to creating more triple bottom line value for the host cities?

Olympic sustainability strategy

There’s no question it’s a priority: sustainability is one of the pillars of the Olympic Agenda 2020, a strategic roadmap guiding the future of the Games. Each year, the International Olympic Committee touts the steps it is taking to make the Games more sustainable and promote social and environmental stewardship.

The PyeongChang Organizing Committee developed a sustainability strategy around five key pillars that cover the “people, planet and prosperity” buckets of the triple bottom line of sustainability, and are actively reporting against their scorecard to provide transparency. Clearly the goal is to not only mitigate the potential impact of the Games, but to create lasting value through infrastructure improvements, legacy projects, and partnerships.

The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games were also the first winter Games to receive ISO 20121 certification for sustainable events. To achieve this, they implemented a governance structure and a sustainability management system, developed KPIs to track progress towards goals, and instituted continuous improvement processes – all recommendations we make to our clients.

The reality

The Olympics are never without controversy when it comes to sustainability, and the reality often doesn’t live up to the assurances. In 2014, after promising an Olympics that would be “in harmony with nature,” the Sochi Games Organizing Committee was accused of illegal waste dumping, interfering with wild animal migration routes, destruction of a national park, and a generally decreased quality of life for residents. Additionally, despite PyeongChang’s commitment to the environment and transparency, an ancient forest was partially destroyed to create some of the ski slopes.

For PyeongChang, it remains to be seen how some of the new buildings will be reused to create the promised winter sports attraction (the stadium was actually designed to be temporary and will be destroyed after the Paralympics in March). The significant cost and low return on investment has led to fewer cities putting their names in the hat to host future Games.

The radical reuse concept

Is it all bad news for elite athletes, sports fans, and the cities that host the games? Not necessarily. Other host cities are learning from past mistakes and centering their infrastructure plans around sustainability: Paris and Los Angeles, who will host the Summer Games in 2024 and 2028 respectively, are pledging to work together to make both games models of sustainability. Notably, both cities plan to host most events in retrofitted existing facilities rather than invest in a lot of new construction, an approach Los Angeles is calling “radical reuse”. A “low-construction” Olympics that utilizes existing buildings and established urban infrastructure to move and host guests not only creates less impact on the environment, but it also reduces construction costs and risks of unpredictable expenses and massive overruns that have plagued past Olympic Games.

With much of the impact and expense being related to new construction projects, perhaps the best way forward is to rely on the past, and get the most value out of reusing the facilities we have (even if that means the pool of eligible host cities shrinks). No matter the scale of the sustainability project, often the greenest and most cost-effective strategy is to work with what you’ve got. A sustainability best practice is to track economic benefits of sustainability actions, as economic value is part of the triple bottom line. Delivering economic value is one way to ensure sustainability practices can be continued in the future and that may be where the Olympics should focus its efforts to make the Games a success both for local communities and the planet.  Considering the economic benefits of hosting the Games are hardly clear, quantifying benefits of sustainability, as proposed in the Olympic Agenda 2020, is a step in the right direction.

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