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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Olympics sprinting for a stable, healthy climate

Tim Nixon

29 Nov 2018

“Athletes are powerful role models able to inspire and engage millions of people around the world, and many of them are already speaking up on a variety of sustainability issues, from climate change and plastic pollution to gender equality.”

In this interview with Marie Sallois, Director for Sustainability, International Olympic Committee, we gain a compelling view on the interdependence of sport with a stable climate.  Olympics and sustainability go hand in hand.  Tim Nixon, Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability.

Marie Sallois, Director for Sustainability, International Olympic Committee © IOC

Tim Nixon: What is the overall mission of the Olympics?

Marie Sallois: We can’t speak about the mission of the Olympic Games without talking first about the vision of the Olympic Movement, which is to build a better world through sport. The Olympic Movement is a philosophy of life, which places sport at the service of humanity. It is inspired by the Olympic values of excellence, respect and friendship, and reaches its peak during the Olympic Games.

Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Opening Ceremony – the delegation of the Unified Korea (COR) © 2018 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / MULLAN, Dan

The Olympic Games bring together athletes from around the world in a festival of sport, which is inspired by the Olympic values. The Olympic Village is an example of how the world could be if we all adhere to these values. The most recent Olympic Winter Games in the Republic of Korea was an excellent example of this, where we saw two nations that have been divided come together to compete and live as one team at the Olympic Games in a celebration of humanity.

Tim: Is sustainability a part of this vision?  Why?

Sustainability is central to the vision of the Olympic Movement

Marie: Sustainability has a central place in the vision of the Olympic Movement: to us, a ‘better world’ is a ‘more sustainable world’. Sustainability is one of our working principles. It is also one of the three pillars – along with credibility and youth – of Olympic Agenda 2020, which is the strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement.

Sport is an important contributor to sustainable development

Sport’s important contribution to global sustainability has been explicitly recognised in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. With its global reach and universal appeal, sport has a unique power to help the world address some of today’s greatest sustainability challenges, from development and peace to empowerment of women and young people, health and education.

Young refugees learning Field Hockey during the 2018 Olympic Day in New Zealand© 2018 / Getty Images / GOODALL, Fiona

Sustainability is both our duty and responsibility

To us, sustainability is both a duty and an opportunity. We realise that the very survival of the Olympic Movement directly depends on a thriving environment, strong economies and healthy societies. Our goal is to ensure that sustainability is fully embedded within the Olympic Movement, in all aspects of the Olympic Games and, of course, in our own operations.  In our decision-making, we aim to maximise the positive impacts and minimise any negative impacts that sport can have on the environment, societies and economies. We want to make the Olympic Movement a driving force for a sustainable future for everyone.

Tim: What are some specific examples of sustainability in action at the Olympics?

IOC Sustainability Report shows significant achievements

Marie: Our recent Sustainability Report shows that we have made substantial progress on most of the 18 objectives that we set ourselves in January 2017, to be achieved by 2020. We have seen successful action across all of our spheres of responsibility: as the leader of the Olympic Movement, as owner of the Olympic Games and as an organisation.

The Olympic Games

Perhaps the most visible change has taken place at the Olympic Games level. We recently introduced a series of 118 reforms as part of our “Olympic Agenda 2020 – The New Norm” which aim to make the Olympic Games cheaper, easier to organise and more sustainable. As a result, sustainability principles are now embedded throughout the ‘lifecycle’ of the Olympic Games – from the earliest stages of the Candidature Process through to the handover to legacy bodies.

The impact of these changes can be seen already, with sustainability occupying a central place in the work of the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Organising Committees. Los Angeles 2028, for example, has embraced a ‘radical re-use’ approach, which means that not a single new permanent venue will be built for the 2028 Olympics. For Paris 2024, only one sports venue – the Olympic Aquatics Centre – the Olympic Village and the media centre will be built specifically for the Games. The Centre, which is being built with long-term benefits in mind for the local population, will see all aquatics events take place on a single site.

Looking at past Olympic Games, London 2012 drove the development of the Event Sustainability Management Systems standard, ISO 20121:2012. The standard has since become widely used across the industry, and the IOC has made it a requirement for all editions of the Olympic Games.

Some of the long-term benefits from past Olympic Games remain invisible to the eyes of the general public. For example, climate benefits from innovative projects implemented in Russia and Latin America by Dow, as the Carbon Partner of Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, are still providing carbon reductions that have well exceeded the Organising Committees’ carbon footprints.


Olympic Games Rio 2016, view of the beach volleyball stadium © 2016 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / KASAPOGLU, Mine

We have also developed a standardised methodology for carbon foot-printing to help the Organising Committees calculate the carbon footprint of their editions of the Olympic Games earlier and more efficiently, in order to achieve significant carbon emission reductions.

The power of partnerships

We have partnered with some of the best sustainability experts to make sure that the Olympic Movement – International Sports Federations, National Olympic Committees and the Organising Committees of the Olympic Games – receive the latest knowledge and guidance on sustainability issues.

We have a long-standing relationship with the United Nations Environment Programme and have recently joined its Clean Seas campaign to raise awareness on the issue of marine litter. We have so far secured active participation from nine International Federations, three of our commercial partners (TOPs), a number of National Olympic Committees, and Ichinomiya town in Japan, which will host surfing competitions during the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. We are building on this momentum. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is helping us avoid any potential negative impacts of sport and the Olympic Games on nature, while identifying ways in which the Olympic Movement can play an active role in nature conservation.

Walking the talk on sustainability

Of course, the IOC as an organisation also has a responsibility to ‘walk the talk’ on sustainability. We treat this responsibility very seriously.

Olympic House – our new headquarters currently being built in Lausanne – will serve as a collaborative space for the Olympic Movement at large and is on track to achieve the highest international sustainability certifications.

We also have an innovative carbon mitigation programme in place, thanks to our Official Carbon Partner Dow, that goes well beyond balancing our own operational footprint.

Tim: How can the Olympics drive even more impact?

Adapting to the needs of the city

Marie: With the Olympic Agenda 2020 – New Norm we drastically changed the way we approach the organisation of the Olympic Games, making sure that it is the Olympic Games that adapt to the needs of the city, and not the other way around. We want the Olympic Games to be viewed as a means to help the host cities and regions address their existing sustainability challenges, rather than as an obligation for the city to change and adapt specifically for the Olympic Games.

It is important to remember, however, that the ultimate responsibility for the delivery of the Olympic Games lies with the host city. Our role is to provide the right tools, information and guidance to facilitate this process as much as possible. The actual implementation is then up to the host city itself.

Collaborative approach

As part of our renewed collaborative approach, which recognises the power of partnerships, we engage with experts very early on in the Olympic Games lifecycle, making sure the host cities receive guidance every step of their sustainability ‘journey’.

UN Climate Change Summit

At the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit (COP24) starting in Katowice next week, we will be taking on a leadership role in the new “Sports for Climate Action Initiative” which is being launched by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Its aim is to set a clear trajectory for the global sports community to contribute to global climate goals and use its power to drive meaningful action. We will be launching two technical guides at COP24, focussing on carbon foot-printing for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and for the broader Olympic Movement.

Sustainable Cities

We have also partnered with C40 – a global network of cities committed to addressing climate change – to help interested, candidate and host cities of the Olympic Games achieve their sustainability objectives, while contributing to their regions’ broader climate initiatives.

Tim: Could more athletes join their voices with the Olympics to demand a 2-degree world?

Athletes are already speaking up

Marie: Athletes are powerful role models able to inspire and engage millions of people around the world, and many of them are already speaking up on a variety of sustainability issues, from climate change and plastic pollution to gender equality. With the power of social media in driving global conversations, their reach is greater than ever before.

French surfer Justine Dupont at a beach clean-up as part of the UN Clean Seas campaign © International Surfing Association

We are assuring the Olympic Movement is well equipped to address climate change

Many athletes and members of the Olympic Movement are all committed to the fight against climate change and we are making sure that they are well equipped. By taking on a leadership role in the UN Climate Change “Sports for Climate Action Initiative” at COP24, we want to engage as many players within the global sports community as possible.

Everyone needs to be on board

For those efforts to be successful, however, everyone must step up their game. Urgent action also needs to come from governments and the private sector at large.

Tim: What is the possible impact on sport, health and the Olympics if we see a 3 degree or more rise in global temperature?

Climate change is already impacting sport

Marie: Climate change is already having an impact on many human activities, regardless of the geographical location. Sport is no exception. As snow and low temperatures become less reliable, climate change is threatening the survival of winter sports and the continuity of the Olympic Winter Games. Rising summer temperatures are increasingly challenging for endurance sports, where – in extreme cases – athletes’ health and lives could be put at risk.


Olympic Games Rio 2016, marathon runners celebrate their performance together © 2016 / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / EVANS, Jason

Limited water supplies, low water quality, infectious diseases and extreme weather conditions are all climate change-related challenges that are increasingly affecting the sports world. Their impacts go far beyond athletes alone – they affect the spectators, the local organisers and the volunteers involved in sporting events.

Finalisation of the Paris Agreement is crucial

If these are the consequences that we are seeing already, then it is hard to imagine the potential impacts of a 3-degree – or higher – rise in global temperatures. This is why it is so critical that countries gathered at the Climate Change Summit in Katowice next week finalise the Paris Agreement Work Program so that global climate commitments can be turned into action. We at the IOC are stepping up our game to make sure the Olympic Movement at large is well equipped to address the challenge of climate change.

Tim: Could the relationship with the private sector and the Olympics be tapped to help drive sustainability?

We are working with our private sector partners

Marie: Absolutely. Private sector engagement is key in making sure our sustainability efforts are effective, and we can see that many companies are treating this responsibility very seriously. We are working with our private sector partners to leverage their sustainability commitments.

Carbon reduction

For example, our Mobility Partner Toyota is developing safer, more efficient and more sustainable mobility solutions for future Olympic Games. Toyota will provide zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, hoping to make them a turning point in our transition towards a hydrogen-based society. The vehicle fleet will mainly include Hybrid Electric/Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles and Battery Electric Vehicles. The aim is to achieve the lowest emissions levels of any official vehicle fleet used at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Carbon offsetting

Another example is our collaboration with the IOC Carbon Partner Dow to offset the carbon emissions of our daily operations through an innovative carbon mitigation programme. As part of the programme, Dow is implementing projects with its customers across markets such as infrastructure, manufacturing, transport and packaging materials. The idea is to change business as usual and transform the way the industry works by using innovative products and technologies. Beyond balancing our carbon footprint, the carbon mitigation programme enables Dow to engage in private sector collaborations to create a low-carbon legacy in the countries where these projects are happening.

There is potential for more

We recognise the immense potential of joining forces with the private sector and look forward to engaging with more companies in the future.

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