The ‘sustainable’ Tokyo 2020 Olympic games seem to lack one thing: sustainability

Sustainable Leaders | Global

By Bethan Henderson, Freelance Writer

Published August 2nd, 2021

If you have tuned into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games you may have seen that the event is being branded as the ‘greenest Olympics yet’. With the media praising the Committee’s green-orientated actions, including recycled cardboard beds for athletes and the hydrogen-fueled Olympic cauldron — how come these games have also been deemed the third least sustainable Olympics since 1992?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee (retaining its original name despite taking place in 2021) have outlined their aim to ‘deliver sustainable Games and showcase solution models of global sustainability challenges to people in Japan and around the world.’

Tokyo’s approaches to achieving ‘environmentally-friendly’ games are outlined in their Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Sustainability Plan. A key factor of this plan includes purchasing 150% of the carbon credits needed to offset the 720,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide that this major event will be emitting. On paper, this makes Tokyo 2020 the first ever carbon-negative Olympics.

Naomi Osaka lights the hydrogen-fueled cauldron to open the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games on the 23rd of July 2021, after a one year delay due to COVID-19. | CNOSF / KMSP

In terms of renewable energy, aside from the hydrogen-fueled cauldron, some events are being fully powered by solar arrays (a collection of solar panels) and wood biomass. The Bicycle Motorcross (BMX) and skateboarding events, for instance, only use solar power. To top it all off, there is also electric transportation provided between and around venues.

Other measures that have been implemented include using existing venues fitted with new energy efficient technologies to host events. This reduces the costs and energy use that comes with constructing new buildings—as tends to be common practice amongst past Olympics and World Cup tournaments. Twenty-five venues used in Tokyo 2020 are from the previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964, whilst the remaining are 10 temporary buildings and eight brand new ones.

There is also an emphasis on recycling, with the Committee ensuring that 95% of materials used are from recycled material or will be recycled in future. An iconic example is the medals cast from e-waste (electronic waste). In addition, the Olympic torches were made from aluminium waste, which was sourced from the temporary housing constructed after the 2011 earthquake in Japan, and were held by torchbearers who donned clothing made from recycled plastic Coca-Cola bottles.

Yuki Arata, the Senior Director of Sustainability on the Tokyo Organising Committee, has stated that ‘from the outset, Tokyo 2020 has been dedicated to leveraging the opportunities provided by hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games to help build a more sustainable society.’

Ranking the sustainability scores of each Olympics since 1992. Note that none score in the ‘green’ zone. | Wolfe et al. / Nature 2021

So, why is this event being accused of greenwashing?

Sven Daniel Wolfe and his fellow researchers at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, claim that the Games remain superficial in their attempts to come-across as ‘sustainable’. The team came to this conclusion by modelling the sustainability measure and environmental impact of all the Olympic games since 1992, with their findings being published in Nature this past April.

The model took into account ecological and socio-economic factors to provide an all-round picture of the Games’ sustainability profile. Ecological factors included the construction of new venues, the visitor footprint and the event size. These socio-economic factors included long-term viability of venues after their use, budget balance, displacement of locals to make room for the event and public attitude. The team concluded that the sustainability of the games has declined over the years.

Tokyo was placed in the research team’s ‘Orange zone’ category, just behind Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016, in the running for least sustainable Olympic games. Effectively awarding Tokyo the bronze medal in the unsustainable Olympics. It may be important to add, however, that the estimates made within this paper are only a projection and that the COVID-19 pandemic may bring in some uncertainty.

Wolfe explains that, ‘the majority of the measures that have been included in this particular Olympics, and the ones that were particularly mediatised, have a more or less superficial effect’. He specifies that the downfall is due to the prioritisation of corporate profit over sustainability and the desire to hold spectacles that out-do past games.

‘The [sustainable] measures that were particularly mediatised, have a more or less superficial effect.’

What is more, the Olympics grow in size over time, which naturally has numerous environmental consequences. In the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, 5500 athletes competed, which has increased to 12,000 in the current games. Accommodating for more sports and hosting more athletes leads to a higher consumption of resources and necessitates more construction.

Other criticisms come from environmental organizations, such as the Rainforest Action Network, which traced the plywood used to build the Olympic stadium to Indonesia. This seems to be highly hypocritical, as the Committee is purchasing resources from a country well-known for clearing huge areas of rainforest to make room for palm oil plantations. As timber can sequester carbon, it was chosen in lieu of other construction materials as another eco-friendly choice.

A move that is less popular given the questionable sourcing, was made worse by the fact that the stadiums will be largely empty, featuring no spectators due to COVID-19 restrictions. And while there is an emphasis on recycling plastics and other refuse, the use of plastics was not banned in the first place.

Masako Konishi, of WWF Japan and a member of the Olympic sustainability committee, has said that some aspects of the sustainability plans are more effective than others. Konishi specifically praises the climate change policies, ‘the extra electricity that is required for the Tokyo Olympics will be 100% renewable energy. And that could be a very good role model for the other future Olympics.’

The extravagant opening ceremony itself requires huge amounts of energy. | CNOSF / KMSP

While this is a step in the right direction, the carbon credit purchase will only offset future emissions, not the actual emissions from the Olympic Games. These Games will add 2.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

With regard to Japan’s sustainability efforts, the aforementioned researcher Sven Daniel Wolfe has said ‘the efforts the International Olympic Committee is making are important but they are limited and not enough. From my perspective, unless they heavily limit the construction aspect and the overall size of the event, they will always be criticised for greenwashing.’

The paper written by Wolfe and colleagues specifies that the Olympics can become more sustainable by reducing the event’s size, holding the Olympics in the same cities on rotation, and creating independent standards of sustainability.

In short, the steps taken in Tokyo to lessen the environmental impact of the games are steps in the right direction. It brings to light the possibility to incorporate sustainable changes into many aspects of life, such as sports, where the environment is often an afterthought.

‘These Games will add 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.’

Not only will this hopefully encourage further environmental considerations to be taken within future Olympics, but also many of the actions taken will continue to benefit the city of Tokyo even after the games have left.

It is important to recognise the impressive efforts that have been made by Tokyo, but also to look towards the International Olympic Committee to ensure they hold the games to a higher, standardised level of sustainability.

Featured Image: Matt Lee | Unsplash

Kuhn A. (2021) 'Even With Cardboard Beds And Recycled Medals, Olympics Take Flak Over The Environment.' NPR Available at: [Accessed July 27th 2021]

Müller M et al. (2021) 'An evaluation of the sustainability of the Olympic Games Nature Volume 4, pages 340-348

Ng K (2021) 'Tokyo 2020: Everything you need to know about sustainability at ‘first-ever carbon negative olympics’.' Independent. Available at: [Accessed July 27th 2021]

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