Preparations are ramping up in France, where Paris will play host to this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games. This year’s event is the first to be affected by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) 2020 sustainability strategy, which outlines how the games should support the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

“As climate change accelerates, the Games’ response to it must do the same,”

Marie Sallois, IOC Director for Sustainability

At first glance, the Paris Organising Committee seem to be going for gold (or should that be going for green?!), announcing their aim of cutting carbon emissions in half compared to the London 2012 and Rio 2016 events. Much of this reduction will be achieved through a reliance on renewable energy, with wind and solar replacing the diesel generators which we would normally expect to see at these events.

Another significant carbon saving comes from the fact that 95% of the facilities to be used over the course of the games are either existing or temporary. The new facilities which are being constructed have been designed to high environmental standards and have planned legacy arrangements – including the Olympic village which will provide much-needed sustainable housing. 

The Paris Organising Committee (alongside the IOC and more than 20 other sports organisations) have also signed up to the UN Sports for Nature Framework. Signatories commit to “protect and avoid damage to important species and habitats, restore key ecosystems, create sustainable supply chains, and educate and inspire the wider sporting community to take action for nature”. 

Surf’s up!

However, it didn’t take long for the tide to turn, and the games have been hit by a wave of major controversy over the decision to host the surfing competition in Tahiti – 9,500 miles away from the host city! This, despite the fact that a number of French locations (including popular surf spot Biarritz) bid for the chance to host the sport. 

The French organisers claim that Tahiti was chosen to provide “an opportunity to engage French overseas territories and their communities in the Olympic Games while showcasing France’s rich and diverse heritage” and that “there was no difference in the cost or environmental impact of all the possible venues”. 

The island, home to the iconic Teahupo’o wave, is world-renowned for surfing, and has hosted multiple international competitions. Previous competitions, as recently as August 2023, have been judged from a temporary wooden viewing platform, designed to minimise damage to the area’s precious marine ecosystem. Sadly, France’s Olympic committee decided that the existing infrastructure wasn’t up to their gold medal standard, and have pushed ahead with the construction of new facilities despite major environmental and biodiversity concerns. 

Ignoring numerous suggestions for alternatives including using the existing tower, virtual judging, use of drones, or of course hosting the competition on the French mainland, organisers have decided to plough on with building a permanent, much larger, concrete and metal platform. The platform will be supported by a concrete base drilled directly into the delicate coral reef.  

Construction began last year and has already caused damage. Work was paused in December after barges transporting equipment destroyed parts of the coral reefs, but has since restarted. Local people and environmental groups fear the project will cause further significant, long-term harm to the reef and the wider marine environment, as well as impacting the local peoples livelihoods. 

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

If this controversy and the challenge of hosting a ‘sustainable’ summer Olympics wasn’t enough for France, they’re also expected to be hosting the 2030 Winter games

Finding locations suitable to host the Winter Olympics is becoming increasingly challenging due to the effects of the climate crisis. In fact, the IOC’s own research estimates that by 2040 there could be as few as 10 countries with conditions suitable for the winter games. 

Recent games have already been disrupted by high temperatures, and Beijing 2022 infamously relied entirely on artificial snow for its events. However, creating man-made snow requires massive amounts of water and energy, as well as needing consistently low temperatures. The IOC is looking at ways to secure the future of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, including split-hosting, rotating hosts, or even decentralising events. 

“As with all sectors, winter sport will need to adapt to the impacts of climate change and mitigate their effects.”

Thomas Bach, IOC President

Like the summer event, winter Olympic hosts are now required to meet certain sustainability criteria, including cutting emissions, minimising new infrastructure, and encouraging climate action. However, environmental groups local to the French Alps (including France Nature Environment, Resilience Montagne, and Non aux JO) are already campaigning against the 2030 hosting, claiming that it is not compatible with a sustainable future for the region. 

France Nature Environment (FNE) has released a statement explaining the concerns surrounding the games, which they feel will only exacerbate the existing problems in the area. The mountain resorts which will play host to key events are already fighting against the changing climate, with higher temperatures and reduced snowfall creating poor conditions for snowsports. Meanwhile they are simultaneously worsening the problem through the damaging practices of making artificial snow and ‘snowfarming’, high energy use, disturbing the natural water cycle, and the high volume of tourists and associated traffic and infrastructure. FNE argues that the funds allocated for the games should instead be used to help secure a sustainable ecological and economic transition for the region. 


However, naming the French Alps as home for the winter Olympics looks like a reasonable decision next to the mind-blowing choice to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in Saudi Arabia! The country is building an entirely new city which will offer a mountain resort, man-made lake, and outdoor skiing which they claim will “create the winter atmosphere in the heart of the desert”. 

Madeleine Orr, from Loughborough University’s Sport Ecology Group, told BBC Sport: “There’s no version of a winter sport event in Saudi Arabia that will be sustainable as it will require enormous water and energy resources, indoor sport spaces and an insane amount of travel.” 

The country’s push for the winter games is just one of many international sports events they have recently invested in, prompting claims of “sportswashing” (the use of sport to draw attention away from major human rights issues). 

We’re not complete spoilsports! 

With all of this being said, it is certainly true that sport brings with it a raft of societal benefits. The Paris games have been the springboard for a new community engagement initiative and new requirements for physical activity in schools, plus extra training for sports clubs to provide better access for people with disabilities. An initial report shows that these schemes are already proving successful. 

The Paris 2024 team have also developed a ‘Climate Coach’ tool to enable other sporting events to calculate and reduce their carbon footprint. It has already been used for 130 events which have achieved an average 20% reduction in emissions. 

If we want to ensure a future where we can continue to enjoy sport – as participants, as spectators, and as members of a wider society that benefits from it – then we need to take action. Major sporting events will need to adapt, for their own sakes, as well as for the sake of the planet. It is time that organisations like the IOC, along with athletes, clubs, and governing bodies, become true leaders and take strong and urgent action. If they don’t do it now, they might find that we don’t have many Olympics left…

“Sustainability in sport will take sacrifices and fewer trips that may make athletes or administrators uncomfortable, but I think in the long term it’s worth it for the greater good of sport.”

IOC Athletes’ Commission member Oluseyi “Seyi” Smith

Be curious!

Featured Image by Bryan Turner on Unsplash