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Impact of Sport on Environment

11.71K   //    24 Apr 2015, 11:34 IST
The Kinetic Energy Recovery System(KERS) has played a key role in recovering the kinetic energy in motor sports when the brakes are applied

Sport, like any other human activity, is set in the physical environment and is bound to have effects on it and be affected by it. The roots of global environmental issues are to be found in local environmental conditions, and in this context the interaction of the sporting communities with the environment within which its activities are performed needs to be analyzed.

There is a two-way relationship between sport and environment. The impact of environment on sport is more palpable and direct which influences the scheduling of certain sporting events according to the suitability of the climate and the physical environment of the particular place. Global Warming has an unmistakable potential of having a long-term negative impact on sports in general and winter sports in particular. However, the focus of this article is on the second aspect of the two-way relation, i.e. the impact which sport has on the environment.

Third pillar added to the Olympic Movement

On a wider scale these impacts can be classified as short-term, long-term; direct and indirect. Some impacts are general in character and can be identified with more or less all the sports; while some are peculiar to particular sports. Recognizing the depth of the problem, the International Olympic Committee(IOC) has adopted 'environment' as the third pillar of the Olympic Movement, the other two being 'sport' and 'culture'.

The Brundtland Commission, in 1987, defined a "sustainable society" as one that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This articulate definition calls upon the 'society' at large to synchronize its activities according to the patterns necessitated by the aim of achieving a sustainable development. It is through this prism that we shall be taking a look at sports in this article.

Measuring the environmental impact of sports in general and a sporting event in particular is certainly an arduous task. An important tool in this respect can be to measure the 'ecological footprint' of an event. The concept of ecological footprint stipulates a speculative area of land which will be needed to replenish the total energy and resources consumed during the event. Energy consumption is converted into the forest cover required to absorb the carbon emission while food consumption is converted into the agricultural land which can produce that much of food.

Sum total of these two, gives us the total ecological footprint. As mentioned above, the effects of sports upon environment can be classified as short term, long term, direct or indirect ; and all of these combine to generate its total ecological footprint.

Short-term impacts include noise or air pollution during the event, while long-term impacts are those which remain even after the end of the event, For example: loss of biodiversity due to infrastructure development or ecological imbalance in alpine areas due to skiing facilities.

Similarly, there is a distinction between direct and indirect impacts. While burning of fuel in a motor race by the competing motor vehicles is a direct impact, when spectators arrive at the venue - burning fuel on the way, it constitutes the indirect impact. Indirect impact can also be in the form of modernization of the host city of a big sporting event, and the consequent tourism avenues which disturb the ecology of that region. 

The scale and gravity of impact depends mainly on the kind of sports and the size of the event. Few environmental impacts are common to all sports. For instance, construction of the playing area by altering the natural ecosystem, or the huge amount of energy consumed in the transportation of innumerable players and spectators throughout the year from one part of the globe to another.


Few other impacts are specific to certain sports. For instance the humongous quantity of high quality fuel burnt in numerous varieties of motor sports ranging from Formula One to Nascar; the chemical elements used to harden the ice for skiing in alpine areas; or extensive water used to irrigate golf courses around the world. Cooling facilities in the stadiums also add to the ecological footprint. 

So much for the harmful effects of sports on the environment. But then, any human activity leaves a considerable ecological footprint; so the question arises that of all the environmental concerns why should we be bothered at all about sports. To begin with, I believe that sports transcends the prevalent North-South discourse pertaining to global climate change regime. On this issue, neither the Global North nor the Global South has the scope of blaming each other.

It involves millions of participants and stakeholders from around the world and its environmental impacts are universal. It cannot be brushed aside merely as a leisure activity. In fact, sports has the potential of serving as a classic model for the neoliberal pursuit to elicit cooperation and change through the mutual activities of states, IGOs, NGOs and the corporate sector.

Aim to devise ways to make sport more sustainable

To this effect, the IOC has incorporated sports as the third pillar, into the Olympic Movement. Its charter states as an objective, " 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."  It has come up with its own 'Agenda 21: Sports for Sustainable Development' and has brought under its purview International Federations, National Federations, National Olympic Committees, athletes, clubs, and even the sporting goods industry.

Its main objective is to find ways to make sports more sustainable and to encourage projects that raise awareness through conferences, knowledge sharing, training workshops, toolkits, and resource manuals. The tenets of this document are mostly idealistic in nature and have no enforcement mechanism. Moreover, the non-Olympic sports are excluded from its purview. 

Another important aspect of contemporary sports is the ever increasing corporatism which has transformed the sports management model. Global sports now represents the logic of global capitalism. Marketing and advertisement are immensely crucial for the success of a particular event or the particular sport per se. Cut-throat competition is the order of the day and it has swept over all stakeholders ranging from the athletes, teams, and clubs to sponsors, sports management firms, kit manufacturers, and advertisers.

This fierce competition among the stakeholders may not leave the scope for cooperation on any issue- leave alone environment. And when there is less cooperation, there is bound to be more innovation.

Thus we have seen some remarkable innovations which are relevant to sustainable development and not surprisingly, a majority of them have come from the most corporate structured sport of all, i.e. motorsports. Innovations such as the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) have the potential of radically transforming the transport industry. However, a lot of work needs to be done in order to make available, this and other such 'clean technologies' at affordable rates so that they can become more prevalent.

Use of renewable materials for manufacturing sports apparel is another such innovation. Leather goods have given way to synthetic products as the former is extracted from animals. Of late, sports organizers have become concerned with reducing the ecological footprint and efforts have been made to organize sustainable events, i.e. events which produce as much energy as they consume through measures such as use of less carbon intensive technology and installing solar panels in the stadiums. 

Sports presents broad opportunities to promote environmental awareness, capacity building and far-reaching actions for environmental, social and economic development across society and this potential must be trapped. However, as is so often the case, in the absence of legally binding enforcement mechanisms, the 'tragedy of commons' doctrine is bound to slow down the progress in this aspect. Under these circumstances, it is very likely that the sports organizations show some concern for the environment merely to inculcate a logic of false consciousness in the Marxian sense of the term.

The real motive of this concern may be to serve as a delusion in order to hush up the prospects of protests from NGOs or the larger civil society against the sporting bodies. Grand and wasteful opening and closing ceremonies, incessant construction of new stadiums and an unclear roadmap for future use of these venues make it evident that the organizers are not very keen to compromise on the spectacle value of sports. Thus, as long as the technological innovations related to sustainability are economically beneficial for the stakeholders, the green light seems to be on.

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