David Owen

"Green" issues are front and centre this week courtesy of COP26, so let’s take a look at how the Olympic Movement is doing and, in particular, how it could do better in the environmental protection/sustainability space.

If safeguarding our much-abused planet is your sole concern, then it has always seemed to me that scrapping the Olympic Games and other international sports jamborees should logically be your preferred policy.

This is not going to happen - nor presumably do any of us using or otherwise connected with insidethegames want it to happen.

But it does put a certain onus on sport both to go about its business responsibly and provide compelling reasons to justify all the international travel and other pollution-creating activities it undertakes for ends which many perceive as rather frivolous.

Efficient management of the Movement's carbon footprint is one way to demonstrate good faith and make a tangible difference on "Green" matters.

Exploiting the Olympics’ special place in the world to try to induce better behaviour by others is another.

In both cases, the Movement has made undoubted headway in recent times - but I think a lot more could and should be done.

Agenda 2020+5 commits Olympicland to "achieve climate positive Olympic Games at the latest by 2030". Paris 2024 is said to be "already working on staging climate-positive Olympic Games in 2024".

It is both an eye-catching slogan and a laudable aim. Yet in terms of what it will mean in practice, an awful lot, it seems to me, is likely to depend on what one might term "Green accountancy" - what is "in scope" as I believe the specialists put it.

On one side of the equation, once victory is inevitably declared, we will need to ascertain what activities count as Games-related.

New sports facilities? No doubt. But what about those roads that have been widened and new hotels that have popped up which probably would not have done so when and where they did if the Olympics had not come to town? And will all air travel by those attending in no matter what capacity be taken into account?

Olympic old-timers will see in this an uncanny similarity to those perennial arguments that rage over the true financial cost of the Games.

New venues built for Olympic Games damages the IOC's green credentials ©Getty Images
New venues built for Olympic Games damages the IOC's green credentials ©Getty Images

As David Stubbs, my go-to independent sustainability expert in the sport sector, puts it: "Carbon accounting is a complex science with many variables that need to be taken into account."

On the other side of the ledger, calculations underpinning the tree-planting or other carbon-sequestration initiatives that may be pressed into service will also demand to be scrutinised in detail.

What proportion of saplings planted can realistically be expected to reach maturity and has this been factored into calculations? How well-managed will the resultant forests be over time?

And Stubbs homes in on another snag: "With tree-planting we are compensating for something we are doing today with something that will not reach maturity for 20 years," he says.

His conclusion: "Tree-planting is not really the answer."

So what is the answer? I have put together a few ideas for how the Movement could brush up its "Green" credentials and convince old sceptics like me it is really serious about sustainability.

In terms of leveraging better behaviour from others, it seems to me that sponsorship could be pressed far more effectively into service.

For example, airlines love to sponsor the Games. Fine. Why not insist that in order to enter the bidding, prospective sponsors must be independently ranked among, say, the top 15 airlines in the world on environmental criteria?

In similar vein, multinational companies vying to become the exclusive purveyor of chips or mobile phones or fizzy drinks or tyres to the Games could be given, or even help to draw up, a set of specific sustainability targets for the span of the contract. Fail to meet them, and an additional sum held in escrow would be released for sustainability projects. The sponsor could, moreover, be excluded from bidding next time.

The money men would fret that such stipulations would bring prices - and bonuses - down, and result in the Games raising less cash for international sports bodies.

But we ordinary citizens are told repeatedly nowadays that we all need to make sacrifices in order to help save the planet. In any case, if the IOC declines to take the “Green” bull by the horns via this sort of measure, it may find that pressure to step up its environmental act is soon being exerted from the opposite direction, from the sponsors themselves.

The IOC could hold its sponsors to higher standards as part of a
The IOC could hold its sponsors to higher standards as part of a "Green" Code ©Getty Images

Another big step that would help convince me that the Movement was deadly serious about making sustainability a top priority would be for sports decision-makers to draft, and then enforce, a "Green" Code, akin to the World Anti-Doping Code.

That strikes me as a good way of spreading good practice through the Movement uniformly and quickly, but of course it would take a concerted effort and require consensus across a wide range of potentially sensitive areas. It would also need an independent Sports Sustainability Agency - with teeth - to police it.

More easily accomplished, if indeed it is not done already, would be to write really strict "Green" specifications into contracts covering things like the supply of mascots and other Olympic/sports  merchandise and, for that matter, official outfits supplied to International Olympic Committee (IOC) members and other officials.

I see that an entity called HYX, or Hengyuanxiang Group from Shanghai, will supply formal IOC uniforms at Beijing 2022, while another Chinese group, ANTA, is to provide "sports apparel uniforms".

It would be nice to think that these will be sustainably sourced - and rigorously so.

And why not elect two or three IOC members purely for their "Green" expertise and credentials? If they were then deployed on key bodies such as the Future Host Commissions and Coordination Commissions, this would be anything but an empty gesture.

Test events have clearly been a vital innovation now that the Games have become so complex. But could they not, in most cases, be executed satisfactorily using domestically-based athletes, hence saving air miles?

Chinese companies are supplying uniforms for Beijing 2022 but there are doubts over how
Chinese companies are supplying uniforms for Beijing 2022 but there are doubts over how "Green" they really are ©Beijing 2022

Having scrolled through it once again, I must say I think the Olympic Charter could do with a "Green"audit. References to sustainability have crept in here and there over the years - for example, the 14th element of the "mission and role" of the IOC is "to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly".

But they could and should be more extensive.

I was particularly surprised to note that no explicit reference to sustainability or preserving the planet has yet made it into the "Fundamental Principles of Olympism".

This strikes me as more than a technicality, since the principles are alluded to at least twice later on in the Charter: first, the objectives of programmes adopted by Olympic Solidarity include contributing to "promoting the Fundamental Principles of Olympism"; then later, the role of National Olympic Committees is said to be, among other things, "to promote the fundamental principles and values of Olympism in their countries".

 Similarly, there is as yet no explicit reference to "Green" or sustainable practices in what the Charter has to say about the Olympic Village, or on the production of publications relating to the Olympic Games.

In short, sport like so many other sectors could and should further up its game.