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Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Gold Medal in Eco-Consciousness

Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Gold Medal in Eco-Consciousness

After thousands of years of Olympic games and celebrations, the environmental burdens from these mega-events are starting to add up. Eco Four Twenty explores the past, and current Olympic games to evaluate just how eco-friendly they are. With renewable energy and cardboard beds, Tokyo 2020 is setting the pace for greener Olympics in the future.

Originating in Ancient Greece as many as 3000 years ago, the Olympic Games are held every fours to respect the ancient origins of the Olympic Games, which were held every four years at Olympia. The first modern Olympics took place in 1896 in Athens, and featured 280 participants from 12 nations, competing in 43 events. 

It’s no surprise to people watching or even attending these mega-events that a lot of time, money and resources are allocated to the Olympics, and thus, cause a lot of damage to the immediate and remote areas affected by the infrastructure and influx of people. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) began making efforts in the early 2000s to set up a tangible measurement of the impacts of the Olympic Games in each host city over a period of more than ten years, in an attempt to foreground sustainability objectives. In 2018, the United Nations passed a resolution that declared “sport as an enabler of sustainable development”and signed a letter of intent highlighting the contribution of the Olympic Games to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).


black and white olympic logo with bronze discus statue


Well how environmentally responsible are the Olympics, exactly? With factors of measurement divided up, there are three main proponents to Olympic-sustainability. The first is ecological- this pertains to new construction, the event size, and visitor footprints (number of tickets) that affect surrounding and future infrastructure for the games. The next factor is social sustainability, this includes things such as public approval for the event, displacement of population for social safety and modification of legislation to accommodate for the event traffic. The last factor is economic sustainability. Things such as venue use post-Olympics, budget balancing for the event, as well as share of public funding to financially support the games. 


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As you can see, there are a ton of considerations the IOC as well as hosting cities need to consider if they are going to participate in a sustainable Olympic hosting. If we were to score all of these sustainability factors on a scale of 100, the most sustainable Olympic games to date were in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002, with a score of approximately 70 points. Since then the IOC has pledged to make sustainability one of the three-pillars in the Olympic Agenda for 2020. 

Historically the Olympics struggled to weigh the importance of sustainability during the planning and oversight of the events. For example, flying an estimated 28,500 athletes and staff to Brazil for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio generated more than 2,000 kilotonnes (kt) of greenhouse gases (GHG) — not to mention the 2,500 kt of GHGs associated with bringing in about half a million spectators.


greenhouse gas fume pillars into the air


The 2014 Winter Olympic games held in Sochi, Russia proved to cause deep environmental damage to the areas surrounding the event venues. A joint highway-railway route constructed to traffic visitors and athletes into the mountainous terrain impacted a spawning area for roughly 20% of the endangered Black Sea population of Atlantic Salmon. Now, no more salmon come up the river due to pollution and destruction of spawning sites and the streamlining of the river bed.

However, there appears to be a light at the end of the tunnel. The 2021 Olympics features the slogan “Be better, together, for the people and the planet.” What does this entail exactly? Well, Tokyo has set the bar pretty high with many innovative alternatives to curb the environmental effects the Olympic Games can have on the hosting city. 

One of the popular alternatives are the cardboard beds Tokyo has put in place for athletes. Japanese bedding company, Airweave, has created 18,000 beds and mattresses for athletes at this summer's Olympics. The bed frames are made from recycled cardboard, while the modular mattresses are made from polyethylene fibres that the brand says can be recycled an unlimited number of times. After the games, the beds will avoid landfill by being donated to national organizations.


tokyo 2020 olympics cardboard beds for athletes


Another really cool initiative that the Tokyo Games are doing is using 100% sustainable energy for all the extra power needed for the Olympic venues. By teaming up with ENEOS, a petroleum company, they are able to use energy generated from wood biomass power, which uses construction waste and tree clippings in Japan to produce electricity. ENEOS is also providing a significant amount of solar power energy that is being produced in Tamakawa, Naraha and Okuma in Fukushima.

It really is amazing to see how the IOC and Tokyo have joined forces to create a more sustainable and eco-conscious community for the games to take place. From the podiums made from recycled plastics, to the zero-emission transport, Tokyo is setting the stage for all subsequent Olympic hosting cities to make a concerted effort to minimize environmental destruction due to the Games, as well as promote a cleaner, more sustainable future for everyone.

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