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Going for the gold and green: sustainability at the 2020/2021 Olympics

By Jillian Loyas, Graduate Assistant for Sustainability

Originally Published: September 15, 2021

Community is often the first word that comes to mind when thinking about a return to the Rider campus this fall. For the first time since March of 2020, our talented, diverse community will once again roam the Lawrenceville campus — a reunited herd of Broncs ready to rejoin one another in the safety and comfort of our academic home. Among all of the troubling headlines of the summer, many of which pointed to the devastating effects climate change is increasingly wreaking on the planet, uplifting stories of another community gathering shined brightly as our global elite athletes met in Tokyo for the delayed 2020 Summer Olympics. A much-beloved tradition, the Olympics once again served as a unifying event aimed to entertain, inspire and unite both athletes and spectators from around the world. Perhaps, more than ever, the focus was not only “going for the gold” but “going green” too.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games brought the world together in the shadow of two planetary crises: the COVID-19 pandemic, which nearly emptied stands and almost caused the event to be canceled, and climate change, which forced athletes and spectators to swelter in 104 degrees Fahrenheit heat. The Olympic Games can no longer ignore the environmental challenges of the modern world, and its organizers made big efforts to “green” the games, hopefully setting a new precedent. The environment has already been on the Olympic agenda since 1994, but sustainability formally became one of the three pillars for the games in 2014. Eager to promote the Tokyo Olympics as the most eco-friendly games ever, the Olympic Sustainability Committee produced a thoughtful, thorough sustainability plan and policy to guide its production. To earn the title of being the first-ever carbon-negative Olympics ahead of the games, the Tokyo organizing committee purchased 150% of the needed carbon credits to offset the predicted greenhouse gas emissions with the funds going toward local projects intended to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a greater amount than the 2020 Tokyo Games emitted.

According to Aaron Smithson in an Aug. 13 article for the Architect’s Newspaper, “Organizers arranged for electric transport vehicles to move athletes around the Olympic village, while cardboard bed frames and medal podiums 3D printed with recycled materials aimed to reduce waste. The Olympic medals were crafted from upcycled smartphones, and Team U.S.A. entered the opening ceremony wearing belts made of recycled plastic bottles. The extra energy from the city’s grid required to power the games was reportedly powered entirely by renewable sources, and it is also certain that the prohibition of international spectators considerably reduced travel-related emissions tied to the event.”

Despite its efforts, many environmental experts still feel these actions do not add up to an ultimately sustainable model. Recently, Martin Müller and five colleagues at the University of Lausanne systematically evaluated how sustainable 16 Summer and Winter Olympic Games were between 1992 and 2020. The team devised nine indicators to assess the sustainability of each Games. They suggested that “the overall sustainability of the Olympic Games is medium and … has declined over time” due to the general size and scope of the modern Games.

The report suggests that many of the more visible environmental actions taken by Tokyo Olympics’ organizers are effectively inadequate in the grand scheme of things. The report highlights issues that climate activists have been raising for decades, including the idea that new Olympic-specific construction projects and the staging of massive global events, regardless of how many cardboard beds are involved, is an essentially unsustainable concept. As many environmentalists have argued for years, there may be a need for fundamental shifts in how the Olympics are conducted, including a move away from the host city bidding system. For the winter games, location is getting more complicated with warming temperatures. Climate change could very well cause the Winter Olympics to melt – with unprecedented consequences. Even before the Sochi games commenced, several athletes showed concern over warmer temperatures and slushy snow, making skiing and snowboarding events potentially dangerous.

As many environmental studies suggest, it is ideal to lessen our overall travel and consumption levels and work toward new modes of doing — not only within the Olympic Games but also within our everyday living. While returning to campus this fall, it is a great time to consider what daily choices you will make to do best for yourself, others and our shared planet. What rewarding, new, eco-friendly habits will you create? For starters, consider making efforts to eat, shop and socialize locally. It’s safest for the environment as well as for overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic. When doing your back-to-school shopping, use your buying power to intentionally purchase from ethical, environmentally conscious, responsible businesses. Choose products made from recycled materials over those made from virgin materials. Support small, community businesses over big-box retailers. The possibilities are endless, and eco-friendly ideas are abundant and easily available all over the internet, including on the Rider Office of Sustainability website, and on all of the @BroncsGoGreen social media accounts, including Instagram, Twitter and TikTok as well as @RiderLawEcoreps on Facebook.

As college students and expert critical thinkers, consider ways to lessen and take control of your carbon footprint, say by carpooling or taking public transit to destinations, turning off the lights and unplugging electronics when not in use, or properly recycling on campus and using refillable water bottles regularly. One way to really ‘go for the gold’ and help your fellow global citizens with ease is by joining the Fill it Forward rewards program. It has the user earn points and rewards for refilling one’s reusable water bottle. In return, money is donated on their behalf toward global clean water initiatives with each barcode sticker scanned through the Fill It Forward app. Stay hydrated to do good for yourself, others and Mother Nature simultaneously. Now that is a thing of true beauty. Fill it Forward barcode stickers are available at many of the water bottle refill stations throughout the Lawrenceville campus and through the Office of Sustainability. Email for more details. May you always feel inspired to go for the gold and green in all of your academic, athletic, creative and professional endeavors both on campus and everywhere, Broncs. Welcome back. Let’s make it our best year yet.

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