Rio 2016: Sustainability Success or Fail?

It’s difficult to imagine that the Olympic Games could ever be sustainable in their present form. Yet since 1996 every Olympic host city has taken strides to integrate environmental and social responsibility into planning.  Each with varying degrees of success, including Rio 2016.

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Rio rolled out the green carpet in a high profile way at the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Choosing arguably the most pressing (stressing and depressing) issue of our time – climate change – as the theme to kick off the biggest global sporting celebration on earth.

As the Games draw to a close, we reflect on a key question: was the event’s focus on sustainability a sincere or superficial effort? Did organizers make credible progress to embed sustainability in event management strategies, and elevate our consciousness about it? Or did they fall short?

Rio 2016: Sustainability Success or Fail?

First, Let’s Recap

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Rio’s Proposal for a more sustainable Games was included in their Bid. The Proposal was expanded into a Sustainable Event Plan that included aspirations and specific actions. This Plan was third-party certified against the ISO 20121 standard, which provides guidance in how to integrate sustainability into events and event companies, in January 2016.

Criticism has abounded on a diversity of sustainability issues related to the Games, some of which were within the scope of The Plan to address, and some of which were not. Water quality at venues and government corruption related to Olympic developments were notable grievances.

Cue the Opening Ceremony, where sustainability – social, economic and environmental – figured prominently. Budgets for the Ceremony were more restrained. Conservation and climate change themes figured prominently in production. Even social symbols, including sets mimicking a favela, made an appearance, albeit in a way that muted the justice issues surrounding them, including the relocation of more than 20,000 families since 2009.

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What Was Reasonable to Expect?

Before evaluating the sustainability-related outcomes of the Games to date, a reality check is in order. What can we fairly expect when it comes to embedding sustainability in an event like this?

The International Olympic Committee amended the Olympic Charter in 1996 to reflect their sustainability intentions:

“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…to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries.”

Twenty years later, what does this mean in practice once a destination is selected?

Each Games whose successful bids have inherited this commitment have made an attempt to honour this intention. Their successes and failures have led to an expectation that sustainability – including integration of ISO 20121 – be included in event bids and plans from the outset. As an aside, it could be argued that the fact we even have an event sustainability standard, with adoption leading among event businesses in Olympic cities, is a direct result of Olympic opportunities, particularly in London.

This relatively new and increasingly focused lens on sustainability issues related to events like Rio 2016 can cause we who are passionate about the topic to develop Olympic-sized expectations about what should be accomplished. And, as is the case with gold-medal aspirations, any lesser accomplishment can sometimes feel disappointing. Yet similar to athletes whose ability to compete is impacted by access to facilities and funding, an organising committee’s ability to implement sustainability is affected by infrastructure, technology, budgets and other things that may be outside of their control. Couple that with the complex nature of decades-old issues like water quality and poverty in cities like Rio and a seven-year planning cycle seems like a very short time to solve such difficult challenges.

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The Successes

So while we await final sustainability reports with outcomes as promised by Rio 2016, we consider some of the gains:

  • Development of a Taste of the Games program delivering more sustainable food options to 70 venues providing 14 million meals during the Games. Among other things this Program has helped introduce new suppliers of certified sustainable seafood to Brazil.
  • An expanded partnership with Dow to measure, manage and offset carbon impacts. This program has refined carbon measurement methodology for events and offset more emissions than has been done in the past. It also invests in local projects that are long term. And while this effort could be critiqued as “paying for carbon sins”, it remains a rare example of proactive carbon measurement and mitigation strategy in the event industry.
  • Creation of a sustainable procurement manual and process to guide business development in Brazil. This has helped grow the sustainability credentials of small businesses in Brazil who have earned the right to do business with Rio 2016 by investing in greener practices and credentials. This program has helped the Games reach for a goal of using 100% certified, traceable timber. It has also led to the creation of medals using recycled materials and reduced harmful chemicals.

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  • Amplification of a climate action message to a global audience. While the outcomes of awareness-building efforts are arguably soft, Opening Ceremony broadcasts and their planet-conscious message reached an anticipated three billion people. And involved athletes in a practical call-to-action through tree planting. The Olympics was also used as a platform to further an athlete-driven climate awareness campaign: 1.5 Degrees The Record We Must Not Break.
  • Some improvements in infrastructure in Rio, including public transit, revitalization projects, intended conversion of venues into schools and public recreation facilities, improved smart city technology and waste water treatment.
  • Human-scale legacy projects including the Transforma Sports Festival, attended by over six million students, and the introduction of a Refugee Olympic Team.
  • “Pop-up” projects on the periphery of the official event, that address topics like food waste, poverty and social inclusion, including the inspiring Refettorio Gastromotiva that is improvising meals for the homeless in Rio using food that would otherwise be discarded by caterers.

The Failures

Of course any successes must be evaluated against environmental and social responsibility failures, some of which are particularly distressing:

  • Water quality assurances that were provided for outdoor aquatic venues in advance of the Games have not been met. Officials estimate 50% of wastewater entering the sailing venue has been cleaned-up, 30% below what was targeted. Some estimate the actual clean-up rate to be much less. Water testing at a diversity of venues has also revealed alarming health risks in advance of the Games.

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  • Development of the new Olympic golf course has been met with protest. Critics claim the site was not subject to proper environmental review and its development was unnecessary and inappropriate given existing courses could have been improved, resulting in less impact on drought-stricken water supplies and sensitive, protected habitat. Further, development of the course has led to allegations of misconduct within the Mayor’s office.
  • Revitalization and development projects have been heavily criticized for benefiting a select few.  Concerns range from misuse of public funds, to putting private developer over public interests, and directing improvements in transit and housing to areas of the city that only further the socio-economic divide between residents.
  • Forced relocations of residents out of favelas in the path of Olympic and World Cup developments have also caused social strife, most notably in Vila Autodromo.

These examples may not be as numerous as the successes, but they are significant and deeply unsettling. And exist in stark contrast to the values of transparency, inclusion, integrity and responsibility stated in the Rio 2016 Sustainability Management Plan. In fact, 60% of Brazilians are concerned the Olympics will do more harm than good.

What The Event Industry Can Take Away

The Rio 2016 experience provides evidence that the public expect events to earn social (and environmental) license to operate. It suggests planners need to work hard to listen, anticipate sustainability issues, avoid harm, be good neighbours, prevent corruption and create legacies that respond to real community need in appropriate ways. Falling short of doing so may put event brand at risk.

It also underlines that the public (or customers, or members, depending on the event) expects this even if the factors affecting social and environmental issues are beyond the control of event organizers. Especially for complex events like the Olympics where most people are not aware of the various levels, roles and responsibilities of complex decision making and planning bodies. A perceived responsibility exists on the part of event organisers to not only be responsible in terms of decisions they can control but also maximise their influence in a loud and clear way on issues they cannot control, but are connected to.

That’s a tall order if your day-job is keeping your head above water while juggling the myriad details of organizing events, and not saving the world!

Which raises a final point: expecting the Olympics to shoulder the burden of event sustainability excellence is also, perhaps, not the best and only strategy. Consistent, daily efforts to include and advocate for sustainability at much more modest events in even small ways matter just as much, if not more than at this high-profile quadrennial sporting extravaganza. Much like regular exercise and conditioning help hone the fittest athletes, consistent effort on sustainability day in and day out shapes a fitter more resilient event and event industry. Something we’ve seen among events and suppliers profiled here on EventMB.

In Conclusion

Watching this match from the sidelines as an event sustainability professional I confess I feel deep empathy for organisers of Rio 2016. It is a tall order to expect a single event to solve a city’s complex sustainability woes. And some successes have moved the needle of sustainability progress in Rio.

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That said, Rio 2016 has suffered shortfalls on key commitments. And there are clear inconsistencies with sustainability values when it comes to some local preparations, which have led to understandable civic unrest.

It will ultimately be up to the IOC to evaluate whether or not the sustainability intention of their Charter has been met, or if binding commitments and accountability mechanisms need to be built into bid and planning processes to discourage unrealistic sustainability goals, and reneging on them. Or taking it further: consider if a completely new event model and destination selection strategy needs to be adopted.

What do you think? Were these Games a sustainability success or fail? And is a sustainable Games even possible given the current model? We would love to hear your assessment in the comments below.

About The Author
Shawna McKinley
Shawna McKinley is a sustainability specialist who believes in the power of events to make the world a better place. She helps eventprofs take practical, smart steps through zero waste and carbon conscious choices that generate social good, business value, and happy event participants. Read more on her blog, Eventcellany.
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