To start off the new year, Tokyo 2020 gave the world a sneak peek into the sustainability-minded bedrooms in the Olympics Athletes Village. The spotlight was on the beds, with frames made of cardboard and mattresses of recyclable plastic.
Despite the flimsiness that cardboard evokes, Olympics organizers say the frames, designed by the Japanese mattress company Airweave, are stronger than their conventional wooden counterparts and will easily support the tallest and heaviest Olympic and Paralympic athletes who will compete.
“The organizing committee was thinking about recyclable items, and the bed was one of the ideas,” Takashi Kitajima, the general manager of the Athletes Village, told the Associated Press.
The beds are only part of the city’s sustainability aspirations. Tokyo is set to have the most ambitious energy and waste plan of modern Olympics history. Goals include sourcing exclusively renewable energy, using entirely low-pollution and fuel-efficient transportation, building venues and items from recycled materials, and recycling or reusing 65 percent of waste from operations.
If all goes according to plan, Tokyo will surpass London, which was praised for its low-carbon strides for the 2012 Summer Olympics. London’s 2012 goal was to use renewable energy for 20 percent of Olympic needs. The city likely achieved only half of that goal. Just eight years later, Tokyo aims for zero-carbon games with 100 percent renewable energy from a renewable electric grid.
While London and Tokyo have achieved impressive sustainability feats, the Olympics have not always won praise for environmental, social or financial sustainability. In recent decades, the Olympics have developed a reputation for bankrupting cities, such as in the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal — and some critics have called for new ways to reduce these events' social, financial and environmental impacts. Many observers have pointed out that some past Olympic host cities — notably Athens and Rio de Janeiro — built massive complexes and new sports venues only to end up seeing them abandoned after those cities' Summer Games were over.
In August, Kate Zerrenner wrote about the difficulties Tokyo faces as the Summer Games near. For one, costs have been higher than projected. Two years ago, the International Olympic Committee urged Tokyo to cut $1 billion from the event’s $12 billion budget. Organizers must account for the risks of flooding due to summer storms, which could incur further costs.
The question is whether greening the current model of the Olympics is enough to make the games worthwhile for cities that win the right to host this coveted event.
With increased scrutiny over the Olympics in recent years, alternative hosting models have been proposed. One option is keeping the Olympics in one city forever. But the games are an inherently global activity, and they’re likely to continue rotating from city to city for at least another couple of decades. In that time, can they enter a city and leave a far more positive legacy, as is the general assessment of past hosts such as Barcelona and Sydney? And can sustainability help a city achieve its goal of profitability?
Research from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an independent think tank, identified a turning point in Olympics profitability in the 1970s when the event was exploding in size and participation. In the midst of this growth, in 1979, Los Angeles provided a success story. Unlike most modern Olympic cities, Los Angeles turned a profit, partly by using existing stadiums and infrastructure.
The case of Los Angeles, which will again host the Summer Olympics using existing infrastructure in 2028, highlights the fact that the heart of sustainability is in reducing impact. Yes, renewable energy and recycling are major components, but technology is a tool, not a tenet, of sustainability. Envisioning how existing infrastructure can meet the needs of Olympic activities and how new development can suit a city might be the most sustainable way to design the Olympics to make a profit.
Evidence is suggesting that change is already coming. For its part, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is looking to demonstrate its value for the environment. The IOC published its second Sustainability Progress Report this November. Its Olympic Agenda 2020 promotes more responsible methods for developing future Olympics, including reduced costs, more financial assistance from the IOC, and long-term views for venue and infrastructure development.
Tokyo’s strides toward carbon neutrality and recycling are impressive. Hopefully, future host cities can follow its lead, but also create their own model of sustainability that fits their city, their people and their budget.
Image credit: Airweave USA
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.