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The Olympics jumps the first hurdles in race to be sustainable

Published 16 November 2021 in Sustainability • 8 min read

Among the triumphs of the 2020 Tokyo Games were a few sustainability firsts – from 100% recycled materials in the medals to broad use of renewable energy – that offer lessons in sustainable leadership to other organizations.

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be remembered for many things and not only that they were successfully staged within difficult conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Primarily, there was the spirit of human perseverance, of solidarity among competitors and of mutual respect. And there were obviously also the medals. For many athletes, the ultimate prize of winning gold, silver or bronze kept them motivated and drove their long preparation.  

However, there was something particularly special about the medals – and that is that they were the first Olympic Medals to be produced entirely from 100% recycled materials. And not just any recycled materials: the 5,000 medals handed out were created by extracting metals from used electronic devices, such as mobile phones, donated by the Japanese in a two-year nationwide campaign launched in 2017. 

This was a sustainability first for the Games, and was part of a wide-ranging program of initiatives implemented by the Tokyo 2020 organizers to showcase a more sustainable society.  

In addition to the recycled medals, the Olympic torch was produced using aluminum waste from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, and recyclable household plastic waste products – also obtained through a public campaign –  were used to make the podiums for the medal ceremonies. Hydrogen powered the Olympic cauldron, the Olympic vehicles and parts of the Olympic Village and much of the energy for the Games came from renewable sources. 

These projects, along with many more, could not have happened without a strong commitment and ambition early on by the host city, the Games organizers and its delivery partners to make the Games sustainable.  

In previous years, it was not uncommon for the sustainability and legacy ambitions of an Olympic Games to be defined well after a city was elected. This meant that crucial elements of Games planning and implementation such as sponsorship, infrastructure, resource management – to name a few  would move forward without sustainability and legacy principles and considerations being addressed and integrated early on. Trying to apply such important elements retroactively was obviously challenging and, in some cases, impossible. 

That changed with the adoption by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in 2014 of Olympic Agenda 2020, the strategic roadmap for the IOC and the Olympic Movement. Olympic Agenda 2020 was built on the three pillars of credibility, sustainability and youth, and included a set of 40 detailed recommendations. Its overarching goal was to ensure that the Olympic Games adapt to the changing world and help respond to the growing environmental, economic and social challenges, in line with the Olympic vision to “build a better world through sport”. 

The impetus for change came from Thomas Bach, who had been elected IOC President a year earlier. President Bach recognized that the world was evolving rapidly and that the Olympic Movement had the opportunity to change or be changed”. 

The IOC’s sustainability journey began in earnest in 2015, when the organization created a sustainability strategy to respond to specific sustainability recommendations of Olympic Agenda 2020. The strategy is based on the three spheres of responsibility of the IOC: as an organization, as owner of the Olympic Games, and as leader of the Olympic Movement. It is built around the five focus areas of infrastructure and natural sites, sourcing and resource management, mobility, workforce, and climate.  

Olympic Agenda 2020 also reshaped the IOC’s approach to future host elections with an emphasis on flexibility and contextualization, sustainability and legacy, and partnership and cost efficiency. The overall ethos is to make the Olympic Games work for the city, region and country by aligning them with existing long-term development plans, and not to make the host adapt to the Games. 

The approach begins with a new, non-committal stage of open dialogue and exchange where no commitment is made, either by the Interested Party or the IOC. This phase is known as Continuous Dialogue. It is followed by a more defined formal phase – Targeted Dialogue  during which the IOC Executive Board targets one or more Preferred Hosts to develop a project for a specific edition of the Games. Commitments are requested during this phase.  

The non-committal and confidential nature of the Continuous Dialogue phase benefits interested parties. It has encouraged them to come to the table to discuss ideas, assumptions and concepts, explore a vision, or simply ask for information pertaining to the potential hosting of a future Games. This dialogue allows the interested parties to engage and align before they make their ideas and plans public, and helps them to see how best to align their Olympic planning with their own long-term community development plans. 

The IOC also provides significantly more assistance, expertise and analysis than in the past. This means that costs for potential hosts are kept to a minimum and they are able to benefit from up-to-date information and expertise provided and paid for by the IOC. The committee has also refined and simplified the one official submission that is required during the Targeted Dialogue phase – from past processes – therefore further reducing costs.  

Given the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, in March 2020 the IOC Executive Board announced that the IOC would be a climate positive organization by 2024 and that the Olympic Games would be climate positive from 2030

The Interested Parties for the 2032 Games, which ultimately were awarded to Brisbane, Australia, were the first to fully benefit from the IOC’s new approach under Olympic Agenda 2020. The new Continuous Dialogue stage enabled parties to have a better understanding of the context around Brisbane’s potential hosting, their vision and ambitions, and equally allowed Brisbane and state authorities to have a full understanding of the IOC’s priorities and expectations. It also provided the opportunity to discuss together and define the optimal use of existing and temporary venues while balancing the long-term needs of the region. 

Brisbane is the first Olympic Host elected with the IOC’s new climate-positive commitment in the Host Contract. The new approach to future host elections enabled the IOC to discuss the concept in detail with Brisbane representatives and agree on short-, mid- and long-term plans collaboratively.  

Given the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, in March 2020 the IOC Executive Board announced that the IOC would be a climate positive organization by 2024 and that the Olympic Games would be climate positive from 2030. This decision builds on the climate work achieved by the IOC since the publication of its sustainability strategy, which included achieving carbon neutrality as an organization, making Olympic Games carbon neutral, and co-launching with the UN the Sports for Climate Action Framework. 

The climate positive commitment means that each Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (OCOG) will be required to go beyond the current obligation of reducing and compensating carbon emissions directly related to their operations. They will have to minimize and compensate their direct, as well as indirect, carbon emissions, offset more than 100% of their residual emissions and use their influence to implement lasting zero-carbon solutions for the Games and beyond.  

 In March, Paris 2024 went a step further by committing to staging climate positive Games ahead of the 2030 deadline. The city’s organizers aim to reduce the Games’ carbon emissions by 50 per cent compared to previous Games, offset more than their residual emissions, and use their influence to develop long-term carbon compensation projects. 

Building on the achievement of the Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms, the IOC adopted in March a new roadmap for 2021-2025: Olympic Agenda 2020+5. It pledges to foster sustainable Olympic Games with recommendations such as: the development of strategies to address the impact of climate change on future Olympic Games; requiring that no permanent Olympic construction occurs in statutory nature and cultural protected areas; and fostering the delivery of lasting benefits to host communities. It also aims to strengthen the role of sport as an enabler for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (human rights, gender equality and inclusion) 

With sustainability, all the preparation and strategic thinking must take place years ahead of the Games themselves. In this way we hope we are playing our part at the IOC in ensuring that the Games not only meet their sporting targets — whether that be medals or bringing inspiration to millions — but also in using the power of sport to build a better and more sustainable world. 



Michelle Lemaître

Michelle Lemaître is Head of Sustainability for the International Olympic Committee.


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