Record-Breaking Athletes Battle Record-Breaking Temperatures: Climate Change as a Threat to the Olympics
Climate change will put athletes’ health at risk and compromise the commercial viability of the Olympics as a major sporting event. What is the Olympic Movement doing about it?
A flower has sprouted in the street.
Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic: steer clear.
A flower, still pale, has fooled the police,
it’s breaking through the asphalt.
Let’s have complete silence, halt all business.
I swear that a flower has been born.
Its color is uncertain.
It’s not showing its petals.
Its name isn’t in the books.
It is ugly, but it really is a flower.
I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon
and fondle with my fingers this precarious form.
It’s ugly, but it’s a flower.
It broke through the asphalt, tedium, disgust, and hatred.
As Dame Judi Dench poignantly read the above translation of “Nausea and The Flower,” a poem by Brazil’s Carlos Drummond de Andrade, at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, the world took notice: Rio de Janeiro brought the conversation about climate change front and center at the Olympics.
In a ceremony broadcast to an estimated primetime audience of above 3 billion, the organizers devoted an entire segment to stark warnings about rising sea levels and global warming. The traditionally five-colored Olympic rings were unveiled in an all-green version. The cauldron had a low-emission design alluding to the power of solar energy. Reaction was immediate: The climate change focus headlined ceremony reviews.
While most praised the initiative, some wondered what the Olympics have to do with climate change. The answer, as it turns out, is: A whole lot. A recent study published in the journal Lancet shows that climate changes poses a threat to the very existence of the summer Olympic Games as we know today.
The study forecasts the impact of climate change in major cities in the northern hemisphere across four dimensions – temperature, humidity, heat radiation and wind – along the upcoming decades, and then compares the data points against safety standards currently used by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to assess a city’s bid to stage the Games. These standards range from athlete health safeguards to likelihood of event cancellation due to extreme weather conditions.
The findings are striking: By 2085, only four cities in the northern hemisphere – Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow – will meet the IOC’s criteria to host the Games. In all others, rising temperatures and humidity will cause heat stress to limit the viability of outdoor endurance events. Traditional summer Olympic events such as the marathon, race walking and road cycling will be particularly life-threatening for athletes.
In addition to putting athletes’ health at risk, climate change will also compromise the commercial viability of the Olympics as a major sporting event. “Risk of unpredictable disruption of an event that involves billions of dollars, years of planning, hundreds of thousands of people, and massive global media attention would greatly reduce the attractiveness of a venue, particularly if the disruption is required to avoid serious risk to the athletes,” warns the study. Moreover, the breaking of records will be in jeopardy, as high temperatures are not conducive to athletic breakthroughs.
The IOC has already started taking steps to address the effects of climate change on the Games. In addition to using the Olympic opening ceremony spotlight to educate a global audience on the perils of global warming, it has included a defense of sustainable practices in its Olympic Agenda 2020, whose aim is to address challenges faced by the Olympic Movement. Olympic organizers have also fostered discussion specifically on the impact of climate change to the Games. For instance, the Rio organizing committee sponsored a symposium titled “Climate Change: What The Olympics Have To Do With It?” before the Games.
While these are praiseworthy efforts, the IOC and local organizing committees will likely have to both adapt existing Olympic protocols and invest heavily in the battle against global warming.
In terms of adapting existing protocols, the study mentions hosting outside events indoors as a possibility. This would, however, cause the undoing of Olympic staples such as the marathon, with damaging consequences to the Olympic brand. As Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Program puts it, “The outdoors have been the arena for athletic achievement for thousands of years and today this tradition is nowhere more on display than at the Olympic Games.”
Other adaptive measures would be hosting summer Olympic events at night, in the winter or in a permanent site; requiring athletes to wear heat resistant gear; or simply removing endurance events from the Olympic portfolio. Any of these measures would face significant pushback from a number of stakeholders involved in staging the Games. For instance, most National Olympic Committees would object to a permanent site. Host cities commonly use the marathon broadcast to advertise themselves as a tourist destination, and so would be hesitant to sanction nighttime marathons.
The IOC’s best bet is, therefore, to step up efforts in the way of mitigating climate change effects. A good start would be for future host cities to build on Rio’s laudable push to associate the Olympics with the fight against climate change. The IOC should also leverage the Olympic brand – one of the most valuable brands on Earth – by licensing it only to carbon-free enterprises.
As an organization in charge of a truly global event, the IOC is in a position to fulfill Drummond de Andrade’s vision and help more and more “flowers” break through the “tedium, disgust and hatred” climate change will bring about.
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 Camille von Kaenel et. alii, “Olympics Ceremony Shines Spotlight on Climate Change,” Scientific American, August 8, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/olympics-ceremony-shines-spotlight-on-climate-change/, accessed November 2016.
 Brady Dennis, “In Olympics Opening Ceremony, Brazil Goes Big on Climate Change,” The Washington Post, August 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/08/05/in-olympics-opening-ceremony-brazil-goes-big-on-climate-change, accessed November 2016.
 Diego Gonzaga, “Rio Olympics: Why the Opening Ceremony’s Spotlight on Climate Change Matters,” Greenpeace, August 9, 2016, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/makingwaves/rio-olympics-why-the-opening-ceremonys-spotli/blog/57225/, accessed November 2016.
 Paulina Firozi, “Olympics’ Climate Change Message Sparks Conservative Backlash,” The Hill, August 6, 2016, http://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/290623-olympics-climate-change-message-sparks-conservative-backlash, accessed November 2016.
 Kirk Smith et alii, “The last Summer Olympics? Climate Change, Health, and Work Outdoors,” The Lancet Volume 388, August 13, 2016, http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(16)31335-6.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 International Olympic Committee, “Olympic Agenda 2020 Implementation Plan – 2016 and Beyond.” Olympic.org, https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/Documents/Olympic-Agenda-2020/Olympic-Agenda-2020-Implementation-Plan-2016-and-Beyond.pdf, accessed November 2016.
 Sport4Climate | Education, “Climate Change: What the Olympics Have To Do With It,” Connect4Climate.org, July 28, 2016, https://www.connect4climate.org/event/climate-change-what-olympics-have-to-do-with-it, accessed November 2016.
 Achim Steiner, “Faster, Higher, Stronger, Greener,” The Official Journal of the International Olympic Academy, no. 9 (April 2016), http://www.ioa.org.gr/images/side_books/IOA_09_fr_low1.pdf, accessed November 2016.
The Olympic Channel, “Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony Full HD Replay | Rio 2016 Olympic Games,” YouTube, published June 12, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N_qXm9HY9Ro, accessed November 2016.
Student comments on Record-Breaking Athletes Battle Record-Breaking Temperatures: Climate Change as a Threat to the Olympics
Interesting post, Nik. Frightening to think that the physical manifestations will be so prevalent that endurance events will be dangerous to hold in a majority of cities. Great to see the Rio 2016 Olympics make such a bold statement on climate change, but given that the games are only held for a few weeks every 2 years, then largely fall out of the spotlight, it will likely difficult for the IOC to become a major stakeholder in the global climate change conversation. I would think that another good policy to adopt would be to force future host cities and nations to meet a certain sustainability standard before being considered as a host.
Thank you for your comment, BAL!
To your point about the IOC’s limited ability to impact the climate change conversation, I would argue that very few events have the power to command as much media attention worldwide the Olympics (the FIFA World Cup being the only event with comparable media coverage that springs to mind,) even if they only take place every other year. Fellow blogger John Hintze makes a great argument for the IOC to step up efforts in that direction, I’d suggest you check it out at: https://d3.harvard.edu/platform-rctom/submission/could-the-olympics-solve-global-warming/
As for restricting Olympic bids to cities with great track records in sustainability, one could argue this would limit the Olympics’ ability to act as a vehicle for change. If your suggestion were to come into effect, the Olympic Movement would be largely restricted to the developed world, which is in contradiction with the Olympic Charter’s directive to expand the frontiers of the Olympic Movement. More concretely, Rio de Janeiro would likely not have been selected as a host city had the IOC required it to meet high sustainability standards before the election. (Guanabara Bay waters are polluted and only about 40% of the city’s sewage is treated.) Had Rio not been selected as a host, we most likely would not have seen climate change concerns take the spotlight at an opening ceremony anytime soon. Can you imagine the USA taking a similar stance in an opening ceremony? The UK, Russia and China also steered clear of controversial topics in their ceremonies, while Brazil not only addressed climate change but also depicted the lasting effects of colonialism in developing countries, was upfront about its shameful past as a slave trade destination and celebrated the cultural richness of Rio’s favelas. Perhaps a better idea would be for the IOC to require future host cities to meet certain sustainability standards after they are selected as hosts, so that the Olympics can effectively help spread sustainable practices globally.
Very interesting article Nik. Before reading this article, I couldn’t think of the direct impact climate change would have on the olympics and how the IOC would tackle this issue. Your article highlighted the intrinsic link between outdoor endurance events with rising temperatures and the risk that would pose on athletes’ health. You also artistically iterated IOC’s role in changing mindsets and publicizing the urgency of the situation. I would be keen to understand how the IOC’s operations (facility design, procurement and building) is helping to minimize environmental impact. For example, how green is the stadium and how much greenhouse gas was conserved because low-impact building materials were chosen? To what extent can the message be controversial? Can we organize a marathon along a beach where rising sea levels have eroded the coastline or something to that effect?
Thank you, Wincent! The IOC now requires organizing committee to embed sustainability practices into the overall planning of the Games.
In terms of facility design, Rio built on the London model and incorporated post-Games legacy concerns into the design of venues. I’d suggest you check out a great Wired article that explains how “Rio goes further [than London] with structures that can be removed, rebuilt, and repurposed.” The article is available at https://www.wired.com/2016/08/games-rios-stadiums-wont-rot-theyll-transform/
As for supply chain management, sustainability was also top of mind for organizers, so much so that Rio 2016 Games were granted the ISO 20121 certification. (More info on the certification at: https://www.rio2016.com/en/news/rio-2016-receives-top-global-sustainability-certificate-for-organisation-of-major-events) Adopting sustainable supply chain management practices were of special significance to the Rio organizing committee given the controversy surrounding water pollution in Guanabara Bay, where sailing events were held.
Climate change is still a controversial and politically loaded topic in many parts of the world. Rio’s strong statement on climate change was itself controversial, as I pointed out in the article. I do think the Games have the potential to bring visibility to the negative effects of rising temperatures, given the aspirational quality intrinsically tied to Olympians.
Insightful commentary, Nik! I had never considered the effects of climate change on the Olympic Games before; thank you for raising an important issue for our awareness.
Your article made me think about a bigger question. We typically consider climate change’s direct effect on companies, consumers, cities, the environment, etc. However, why do we rarely discuss the effects of climate change on labor? In this case, you raised the issue of climate change and Olympic athletes, but there are numerous industries that will be turned upside down by the effects that climate change will bring to the human labor component of said industry. I wrote about climate change’s impact on Delta Airlines, but I did not even consider how climate change will directly effect Delta’s labor practices. For example, thinking of it now, I can envision that increased temperatures will greatly deteriorate safety conditions for Delta’s ground crew personnel at airports. Airport runways are already centers of heat, but increased temperatures could likely make these locations inhospitable for human labor.
All in all, your article pushed me to think more holistically about how climate change will affect business — so thank you!
Thanks, AbMcK. You raise a great point, which is that discussions on climate change adversities are largely confined to impacts on supply chain management and often overlook labor considerations. Your comment too is pushing me to think more holistically about other ways climate change will affect the Olympic business model in terms of labor practices. For instance, the Games rely heavily on volunteers to perform a number of duties. How will climate change affect the volunteer program? In Rio, there were instances of no-show volunteers who quit their jobs about having had to work for many hours under the sun. This is surely a question the IOC will also have to grapple with going forward.
Fantastic post and interesting insights Nik! I have faith that we will avoid the Olympics 2085 predicament you outlined by continuing to implement more and more standards based on sustainable practices globally. Adjusting the Olympics to indoors or restricting day vs. night activities would be devastating on the history of the event, in my view. We need to avoid this at all costs — I think we should harness these global events to act as a beacon for climate change given their prominence and visibility (similar to the educational components of the opening ceremonies).
Thank you, JPrice! I completely agree with you – moving outside events indoor or restricting endurance events to nighttime would be a huge blow to the Olympics. Moving summer events to the Winter would also be problematic for a number of reasons ranging from syncing competition calendars of several sports to diluting the Winter Olympics brand. Offsetting climate change impact by implementing sustainable practices is definitely the way to go.
I also agree that we should harness the Olympics as a beacon to promote climate change initiatives. There is a limited number of truly global events capable of commanding worldwide media coverage, but the Olympics certainly fall under this category. Just like the Games bring together athletes from virtually all countries on Earth, the fight against climate change too will require all countries to come together if it has any chance of succeeding. As I said in my post, Rio’s bold statement on the need for sustainable practices is a step in the right direction that the IOC should continue emphasizing moving forward. Rio’s climate change focus is particularly remarkable given that former hosts have chosen to use their opening ceremonies as a means to advance their countries’ geopolitical agenda, whereas Brazil has chosen to put the spotlight on a more grand topic. (Though there is an argument to be made that Brazil’s choice is also geopolitical and not by any means selfless – Brazil is one the countries that has been most impacted by climate change so far.)
Hey there Nik,
Wonderful article and an inspired subject choice(!) You can see my writing more broadly about the summer and winter games here: https://d3.harvard.edu/platform-rctom/submission/could-the-olympics-solve-global-warming/
I was wondering whether you thought it would be appropriate to use the domestic legislation which gets implemented in order to host the Games (for so many varied things, such as intellectual property rights and tax breaks) as a way to bind countries to commit to the sustainability goals which they want to achieve. I also wonder whether the IOC could start doing joint regional bids (like the 2002 football World Cup) for sharing the burden of sustainability. We already have cities like London 2012 doing many of its events regionally across the UK, so it could also be possible to host some events across borders if there are good reasons to do so. It might diminish the cohesiveness of experiences for things like the Olympic Village, or for spectators trying to attend several events, but there are probably ways to mitigate this extremely well.
Thanks John, I was glad to see we were both interested in the same subject! Given my personal experience with the Olympics, writing about the impact of climate change on the Games was a natural choice for me.
Your question about use of domestic legislation to enforce sustainability standards is an interesting one. While I do not think host cities should necessarily have stellar records on sustainability before being selected to host the Games, (otherwise developing countries would largely be excluded from the pool, which would contradict the Olympic Charter directives,) I do think that host cities should be held accountable to their stated sustainable goals after they are selected. Enacting local legislation is a great way to do so. Rio provides a cautionary tale in this regard – the state of Rio de Janeiro promised to clean up 80% of the pollution in Guanabara Bay but came far from reaching the target and officials have not been held accountable for their failure.
The joint regional bids you mentioned are actually part of the Olympic Agenda 2020, which relaxes requirements about having events hosted within a host city’s limits and allows events to be staged in several cities or even countries. Deutsche Welle has a good article on these proposed changes: http://www.dw.com/en/ioc-agenda-2020-allows-olympics-in-different-host-countries/a-18116022
As you say, this proposal would have an impact on the cohesiveness of the Olympic experience. I do think there is a lot to be said about having people from all nationalities congregate on a single city to strengthen universal bonds and celebrate athletic achievement, (as no other sporting events can achieve a comparable level of congregation). However, the benefits this proposal brings in terms of sustainability (as well as cost reduction) largely make up for the loss.
I completely agree with you that the IOC should leverage its clout and be a game changer. It does seem like Tokyo 2020 could be a wonderful opportunity for a highly industrialized country, Japan, to address climate change. In fact, there the organizing committee seems to be moving in the right direction, as highlighted by a recent plan they have shared: https://tokyo2020.jp/en/games/sustainability/data/sus-plan-EN.pdf
Thank you for your comment, AZ! You’re absolutely correct in that Tokyo 2020 presents a great opportunity for a highly industrialized country to make a bold statement on the importance of combating climate change. (The 2024 Olympics, which will be in either Paris, Los Angeles or Budapest, will be able to further expand on that opportunity.) To your point about Tokyo’s sustainability plan, one interesting aspect of the Olympic is its legacy transmission component: After the Games end, the Olympic host city hosts several sessions to share lessons learned with the next host as part of the handover process. (Rio and Tokyo are currently undergoing this process.) This means that there is an institutionalized mechanism for host cities to build on initiatives from previous hosts, and so it is perfectly reasonable to expect that Japan and other future hosts continue to build on Rio’s climate change legacy.