Photo credit: Rossana Ferreira Source:

The 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro opened with a rallying cry for the environmental movement—a welcome ceremony that featured powerful messages about deforestation, climate change and rising sea levels. But what of the environmental impact of the games themselves?

Turns out, measuring the impacts of major sporting events on the environment is far from straightforward.

Rio organizers released a 102-page sustainability plan before the games, pledging to reduce emissions wherever possible and offset a considerable portion of the remaining carbon output. Despite that, much of the media focus was on the trash-choked Guanabara Bay and other stories of environmental degradation.

Matt Dolf, Director of Strategic Initiatives for Wellbeing at UBC and Advisor to the UBC Centre for Sport and Sustainability, studies how major sporting events impact the environment.  

He said that while he didn’t specifically look at the Rio Olympics, event organizers have wide latitude in how they measure and report the environmental impacts of their events.

“One of the challenges I’ve been seeing is how do you know what to focus on?” said Dolf. “A lot of events will focus on recycling bins, but is that really important? Most of the footprints I’ve looked at have typically said no, it’s tiny, it’s less than 1 per cent.”

Dolf is completing a PhD on how organizers can employ Life Cycle Assessment—a rigorous look up and down the supply chain—to better measure an event’s environmental impact. He has run in-depth analyses of the travel and energy use patterns of Thunderbirds sports teams, as well as a Special Olympics Canada Summer Games event at UBC.

Many events are only recently using “environmental footprint” models.

“A lot of decisions that are being made for events are not actually based on quantitative numbers,” he said of most event approaches. “It’s usually sort of best guess for what areas to work on. That’s where I thought better methodology, especially easy ways to assess impacts of events would help managers, because very few of them would have a full time team of engineers or environmental impact assessment specialists to do that work.”

For events like the Olympics, air travel is typically the largest environmental impact, he said, followed by venue construction. Rio athletes, coaches and officials were expected to take 28,500 flights. But, many events differ on how they report the environmental impacts of travel—meaning one event might not measure spectator travel while another might. 

“It’s what you consider as being within the goal posts,” he said. “That’s one of the things that hasn’t been standardized—what’s in and what’s out. If you include spectator travel then the environmental footprint of travel is usually the biggest. A lot of it depends on where you’re drawing the line and what you’re measuring.”

“Life Cycle Assessment asks you to look very exhaustively up and down the supply chain at the impacts of the materials from extraction to use to end-of-life disposal,” he said.

Then there’s the difficult-to-quantify impact of messaging: does pairing sustainability messages with feats of athleticism encourage people to modify their behaviour?

There’s some evidence for this. The 2012 games in London were reportedly accompanied by increases in recycling, cycling and public transit use—trends that continued after the closing ceremonies. The Vancouver Games in 2010 also saw the installation of the Canada Line and sustainable construction initiatives at the Athletes Village. 

But that can lead some events to “oversell” themselves as an overall benefit to the environment, Dolf said.

“I think we’re a long ways from that,” he said. “In no way are we creating net-positive events yet.”

At best, organizers can hope sporting events “leverage positive change more broadly for the things that really matter like energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, rather than just looking at the recycling bins and kinds of paper being used,” he said. 

By Jonny Wakefield, 25 August 2016