A white woman wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, yellow vest, and tinted goggles leans over the side of a sailboat during an Olympic sailing competition. The boat, labeled “DEN” and with a white and red sail, is positioned toward the left side of the image facing forward and is surrounded by sprays of water. In the background are four more sailboats with white and red sails, and country flags fly.
According to new rankings, World Sailing has made more progress toward environmental sustainability than any other international federation in the summer Olympic program. Above, Denmark’s Anne-Marie Rindom competes during the Laser Radial women’s race during the 2020 Summer Olympic Games on 29 July 2021 in Fujisawa, Japan. Credit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

The Summer Olympic Games bring together top athletes from around the world to compete and showcase their skills every 4 years like clockwork—excepting the most recent games, of course. As issues of environmental sustainability continue to gain public and political traction, the Olympic Games have become a focal point for environmentalists and academics seeking to raise awareness and evaluate the environmental impacts of international sporting events.

But those impacts extend beyond the 4-year games: Thirty-two International Sports Federations (IFs) participate in the Summer Olympic Games, each of which may host dozens of international competitions every year. Each federation’s progress toward sustainability contributes to the overall environmental impact of the Olympic Movement. However, a new report found that most IFs have made little to no progress over the past decade toward the environmental sustainability goals set by the Olympic Movement, and even fewer sports organizations have sustainability goals of their own.

“Climate change poses a multitude of risks for the sporting sector,” Dominique Santini of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, lead researcher on the report, said in a statement. “Immediate climate change mitigation among sports organizations is therefore vital.”

Who Medals and Who Isn’t Competing?

The researchers mined environmental sustainability information released during 2010–2020 on federations’ websites, in memos, and in strategic plans for the future and also looked at more informal communications on Twitter. The team took into account not only how many times an organization communicated about environmental sustainability but also what they mentioned (e.g., just using buzzwords, talking about a problem, or reporting progress made toward solutions), whether the communication was prompted by an external factor like governance, and whether the communication was backed up by action.

In the new ranking system, World Sailing placed first in environmental sustainability progress, followed by World Athletics, World Rowing, and Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Information from those four tier 1 federations included environmental sustainability terminology, ethical corporate communications practices, proof of commitment, and an environmental sustainability strategy. World Sailing and World Athletics also shared a management framework for their strategies, and World Sailing came out on top by demonstrating accountability and continually reporting on its progress via social media.

“There are significant opportunities for other international federations to integrate environmental sustainability targets into their respective sports.”

“Environmental sustainability is one of World Sailing’s strategic priorities, with delivery of our Sustainability Agenda 2030 starting in May 2018 after being unanimously supported by our members,” Dan Reading, head of sustainability at World Sailing, told Eos.

However, from 2010 to 2020, 17 of the 32 international federations did not meet any of these environmental sustainability progress criteria. Furthermore, seven sports—Badminton World Federation, International Gymnastics Federation, International Handball Federation, International Shooting Sport Federation, International Tennis Federation, World Karate Federation, and World Skate—did not mention environmental sustainability at all during that time. The remainder were found to have made some environmental sustainability progress but without having a specific strategy in mind.

“This research paper shows that there are significant opportunities for other international federations to integrate environmental sustainability targets into their respective sports,” Reading added. The report was released on Emerald Open Research in July.

What Hinders or Drives Progress?

The researchers also examined potential drivers of sustainability progress among the IFs. They found that academic literature on the environmental sustainability of the Olympic Movement has disproportionately focused on the 4-year Summer Olympic Games: Literature searches returned 23,000 studies per Olympic Games but only 337 per International Gymnastics Federation event and 22 per International Fencing Federation event. Only five Olympic sports (golf, surfing, football, sailing, and hockey) have received any sport-specific focus in sustainability literature, and only three of those (sailing, football, and surfing) ranked in the top five of making progress.

There was some correlation between a sport’s sustainability progress and its connection to the natural environment—World Sailing, for example, ranked first—but that correlation did not hold for all sports. World Athletics, for example, ranked second, whereas the International Surfing Association ranked fifth and the International Golf Federation ranked eleventh.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at a climate strike in Switzerland in January 2020. Credit: Markus Schweizer, CC BY-SA 4.0

The researchers found that formal activities related to environmental sustainability, like the release of the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2014, the Paris Agreement in 2015, and various governance-related factors, had little correlation with environmental sustainability communications or strategy. However, more informal environmental activities that penetrated deep into public awareness, like the release of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series in 2017 and the rise in climate activism related to Greta Thunberg since 2018, were more closely correlated with shifts in IFs’ communications related to environmental sustainability.

What’s more, even though tweets from IF accounts largely did not reference the Olympic Games, the number of sustainability-related tweets increased just after the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio Games (and in the months prior to the original dates of the 2020 Tokyo Games). According to the researchers, the timing suggests that the Olympic Games boost awareness of environmental sustainability issues and prompt a temporary shift in communications strategy but do not directly lead to progress on environmental sustainability.

What stands in the way of international sporting federations making progress toward environmental sustainability? A high level of autonomy granted by the leadership of the Olympic Movement coupled with a lack of accountability toward goals and a scarcity of financial and intellectual support, the researchers speculate. “The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should…establish a mandatory annual environmental sustainability reporting system for International Federations to increase accountability,” Santini said. An IOC-supported platform for shared resources “regarding transferable practices related to funding, procurement, and partnerships” would also help accelerate sports’ progress toward environmental sustainability.

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer


Cartier, K. M. S. (2021), Most Olympic sports not advancing on sustainability, Eos, 102, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021EO161752. Published on 06 August 2021.

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