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June 4, 2023

The Environmental Impact of Global Sporting Events

From rugby and football to the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games, global sporting events have become a prominent feature of the modern world. They celebrate incredible sporting talent while providing a way for fans to connect. However, it is also essential to recognize that the world’s biggest sporting events can significantly impact the environment.

The statistics speak for themselves. Since 1971, we have consumed more resources than the Earth can supply. This peaked at an all-time high in 2022 when we stripped 1.75 planets’ worth of resources from the Earth’s ecosystem. With little action being taken, the situation is set to get worse. Global average temperatures are predicted to rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius during the 2030s.

When it comes to the world of sports, global events tend to have a large carbon footprint. From massive investments in infrastructure to the carbon emissions generated from international travel, these events require a vast quantity of resources.

Here we outline some of the biggest global sporting events and the changes being made to reduce their environmental impact.

FIFA World Cup

This quadrennial tournament is one of the biggest sporting events in the world. Every four years, billions of people watch as 32 teams compete to lift football’s most coveted prize. At the 2022 World Cup, more than one million people traveled to Qatar and flocked to the country’s newly-erected stadiums.

Before the 2022 tournament kicked off, the governing body made headlines by proclaiming that it would be ‘a fully carbon-neutral event’. Although the sporting event broke records – more than five billion people engaged with the tournament – it failed to meet its ambitious sustainability commitments. 

In terms of resources, Qatar constructed seven new stadiums for the event. These were open-air stadiums that the organizers attempted to cool with air conditioning units. Additionally, the event catered to fans by building those infamous fan villages. This new infrastructure required large amounts of resources and energy contributed to habitat destruction, and led to increased carbon emissions.

In an attempt to address these concerns, FIFA has emphasized the importance of investing in waste management and introduced recycling schemes. This included using 100% recycled rPET Coca-Cola bottles at the 2022 tournament.

Olympic Games

The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of athletic competition, and they bring nations together to celebrate human achievement. On top of this, billions of people watch both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Despite this camaraderie, the Olympics also have a significant impact on the environment. 

The Olympics host more than 60 sports, each requiring different stadiums, arenas, and equipment. On top of this, athlete villages are built to house thousands of athletes and coaches who travel to compete in the Games. With the addition of transport, infrastructure, and increased energy demand, the Olympics carry enormous environmental consequences.

Before Beijing 2022, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) released a statement that outlined a ‘carbon-neutral Games.’ These carbon neutrality measures included reducing construction by using five venues from the 2008 Olympics, utilizing low-carbon transport, and powering all stadiums with green, renewable energy. 

On top of this, the IOC encourages host cities to prioritize sustainable urban development. They encourage all hosts to design stadiums, arenas, and athlete villages that will serve a long-term purpose beyond the Games.

Rugby World Cup

The Rugby World Cup, the premier tournament in rugby union, has seen remarkable growth in popularity. Every four years, hundreds of millions of rugby fans tune into the tournament in the hope of seeing their nation lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Viewing figures peaked in 2019 when a global audience of almost 900,000 watched the event.

Compared to the other global sporting events on this list, the Rugby World Cup has a lower environmental impact. Unlike the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics, this tournament typically utilizes existing stadiums. This includes the 2023 competition in France, which will utilize nine of the country’s sports venues. This lack of construction also negates the need to invest in infrastructure.

In response to environmental concerns, the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, has published an environmental sustainability plan. This plan highlights the impacts of climate change on rugby-playing nations such as the Pacific Islands. It outlines their three priority areas: climate change, a circular economy, and protecting the natural environment.

Cricket World Cup

The Cricket World Cup attracts a massive following. A global audience of 1.6 billion watched the 2019 tournament, making it the most-watched Cricket World Cup in history. This figure was also 38% higher than the audience for the 2015 competition.

Like other large sporting events, the Cricket World Cup also has some environmental implications that require attention. This tournament has a carbon footprint similar to the Rugby World Cup in that its main environmental concern is travel. Although matches are hosted at existing stadiums, the tournament racks up thousands of air miles as spectators fly across the globe.

The upcoming 2023 tournament will be hosted in India, and cricket fans have been attempting to highlight the devastating effects of climate change. Many have concerns about how rising temperatures could impact India, with almost 75% of Bangladesh situated less than one meter above sea level.

In recent years, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has taken steps to address these concerns and improve sustainability in the Cricket World Cup. This includes implementing new initiatives such as encouraging fans to use public transport and promoting remote participation through digital platforms.

Final thoughts

Global sporting events undoubtedly have an impact on the environment. From new infrastructure and stadiums to travel concerns, many of these tournaments carry a large carbon footprint. However, many organizations and governing bodies are recognizing the need for change. 

The efforts made by these bodies, along with a growing awareness amongst fans, could see an increased commitment to reducing the environmental footprint of these events. These initiatives could become catalysts for positive change, inspiring sports communities to embrace sustainability and protect our planet.

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