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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Hedley

Sustainability at the Tokyo Olympics

Updated: Sep 22, 2021

Faster, Higher, Stronger..... now Greener?

Olympic Rings

After a year delay, the Tokyo games is now complete. With 65 Olympics medals and an incredible 124 Paralympic medals for Team GB, it has been seen by many as a resounding success.

But at a time when the Climate Change and Environmental Emergency is headline news, and the health and economic impacts of the covid pandemic are a long way from over, some critics view such large-scale multi-sport events as excessively risky and costly. Not just for the host nations and athletes, but for the footprint that these events leave behind on our planet.

The consequences of our changing climate such as the varied extreme weather, rainfall and heat witnessed in Tokyo during the games, also had an impact on logistics and athlete performances as discussed in the recent British Association of Sustainable Sport (BASIS) publication Rings of Fire.

So, can the Olympics and other such global sporting events ever be seen as green?

The Olympic movement is seen as the pinnacle event for many sports across the world with the Vision of “Building a better world through sport” and by supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Following on from the sustainability initiatives at London 2012 and Rio 2016, the Olympic Agenda 2020 (the International Olympic Committee (IOC) strategic roadmap) puts Sustainability, alongside Credibility and Youth is a “working principle to maximise positive impact and minimise negative impact in the social, economic and environmental spheres”.

With the ambition to go beyond carbon neutral and operate within circular economy principles, the IOC aim to leave behind a sustainability legacy at this and future games.

“The Games are one of the world’s most widely televised events, and they offer an excellent chance to demonstrate sustainable solutions,” ....... “With its emphasis on the circular economy and sustainability, Tokyo 2020 is setting an example to the world of what can be achieved now and in the future.” - Marie Sallois, IOC Director for Corporate and Sustainable Development.

These ambitions require long-term planning, not least as each event is approximately a 9-year process from being a host city candidate to the event staging.

The IOC Sustainability Strategy is focused around 3 Spheres of responsibility: The IOC as an Organisation, as the owner of the Olympic Games, and as leader of the Olympic Movement.

There are 5 inter-related Sustainability Focus Areas: Infrastructure and Natural Sites, Climate, Sourcing and Resource Management, Mobility and Workforce, and host cities and Organising Committees are expected to meet certain requirements.

Did Tokyo 2020 manage to deliver a sustainable games?

Infrastructure and Natural Sites

There were two main Olympic zones – the Heritage Zone and the Tokyo Bay Zone with the Olympic Village in between.

Tokyo2020 were able to minimise their environmental footprint, by maximising the use of existing facilities and temporary and demountable structures. In the Heritage Zone several iconic venues used at the Tokyo 1964 Games were repurposed, including the table tennis venue at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium and the world-famous Nippon Budokan.

New permanent facilities were only developed that offered long-term sustainable benefits for the city and local communities and prioritised previously developed or degraded land over greenfield sites such as at the Olympic Village which lies on reclaimed land.

Urban green spaces were promoted throughout the zones and natural habitats, water quality and cultural areas protected.

Recognised ‘green building’ standards were used in the design of all new Olympic Venues to optimise environmental performance and to reduce environmental impacts to ensure their ‘Building for the Future’ sustainability legacy.

For example, the new Japan National Stadium, home to the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, was designed to use natural wind through giant eaves instead of air conditioning.

Innovative urban development in the new Tokyo Bay Zone has improved transport and access to the bay area. Innovative design has been used in venues such as in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, which can adjust the length and depth of its pools by moving floors and walls and is powered by solar energy and a ground heat exchanger.


The carbon footprint of staging any large-scale event with the global movement of people and freight is not to be underestimated. The spectator ban this year has inevitably resulted in a large reduction in transportation emissions but the IOC aim of going ‘beyond carbon neutral’ also required the host city to have in place effective strategies, to minimise carbon and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and compensate where necessary. When planning for facilities, climate change impacts were also be taken into account.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) has pledged increase renewable energy use by around 50% to halve GHG emissions in the city by 2030 (compared to 2000 levels). Much of the energy for the games came from a variety of renewable sources such as solar, hydrogen and wood biomass from construction waste and tree clippings.

Hydrogen fuelled electricity and hot water is used in the Olympic Village dormitories, cafeterias, and training facilities for 11,000 athletes. After the Games, it will become Japan’s first hydrogen-powered town and a model for future hydrogen-based societies.

The Ariake Urban Sports Park, which hosted the BMX freestyle, BMX racing and skateboarding events, is powered completely by renewable solar electricity produced in Fukushima, the scene of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

Clean hydrogen fuelled the Olympic torch for part of its journey and was used to light the Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons.

Source: Getty Images

Tokyo 2020 will use green power certificates to compensate the use of non-renewable electricity to go beyond carbon neutrality by offsetting more carbon emissions than it emits. Carbon credits will offset around 720,000 tonnes of CO2 expected to be emitted in Tokyo over the four days of the Olympic and Paralympic Opening and Closing Ceremonies.

Sourcing and Resource Management - Reduce, reuse, recycle

Responsible sourcing of goods and services and implementing effective processes to optimise the lifecycle of materials and avoid waste production was a key sustainability requirement for the Games organisers.

In the existing venues, many of them have been retrofitted with advanced building technologies to reduce energy consumption, and the new and temporary structures were designed to minimise construction costs and energy use and conserve water resources.

99% of all goods purchased for the games will be reused or recycled. For example, timber used in the construction of the Olympic Plaza that was donated by 60 municipalities around the country will be returned to those communities for reuse.

Some 65,000 computers, tablets, and electrical appliances, together with 19,000 office desks, chairs and other fixtures that have been rented rather than bought, will be returned, and reused after the Games finish.

Japanese citizens donated plastic waste to produce the Tokyo 2020 podiums. Source: Tokyo2020

Metals salvaged from nearly 79,000 tonnes of donated smart phones and other electronic equipment have been used to make the 5,000 Olympic and Paralympic medals.

Source: Tokyo2020

Even the Olympic torch was produced using aluminium from temporary housing built in the aftermath of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.

T-shirts and trousers worn by torchbearers were made from recycled plastic bottles. Athletes slept on 18,000 beds made from recyclable cardboard and even the mattresses can be recycled into plastic products.

The synthetic turf for the new Olympic Hockey pitches is made from an innovative 60% renewable source, a bio-polyethylene made from sugar cane waste known as Poligras GT. It requires 60% less water to maintain and it is claimed that the material optimises the playing surface quality. The shock pad below is also made from fully recycled rubber.

Besides reducing waste, Tokyo 2020 will also remove it. Two ocean devices called Seabins are moored in Tokyo’s harbour to collect plastic waste from the sea.


The working conditions and health & safety for Games employees and volunteers would all meet national and international regulations and standards along with the promotion of active lifestyles and skills development opportunities.

Gender equality, diversity and inclusion was also promoted, with Tokyo 2020 is the first gender-balanced Olympic Games, with 49% of the athletes taking part female and the executive Board with 42% female.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic emblems represent different countries, cultures, and ways of thinking. Its message of “Unity in Diversity” promotes “diversity as a platform to connect the world”.

The first permanent LGBTQ+ centre was established in Tokyo, called Pride House Tokyo. It aims to raise awareness of LGBTQ issues through the creation of hospitality spaces, hosting of events, and production of diverse content. It is the first ever Pride House officially recognised by the Olympic and Paralympic Games.


Sustainable transport for the movement of people, freight and goods are another key part of the IOC sustainability strategy. Tokyo city put in place sustainable logistics solutions for the mobilisation of freight.

They aimed to maximise the use of public transport and active travel modes during the Games for the mobilisation of spectators, organisers and athletes and promote sustainable tourism in and around Tokyo.

500 hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) cars and 100 FCEV buses were provided by Toyota as part of the official Olympic fleet.

Source: IOC

What’s next for the games?

Future Olympic host cities are already building on the momentum from Tokyo 2020 and planning and implementing their Sustainability Strategies. Beijing 2022 Winter games has a Sustainability Plan and Paris 2024’s Environmental ambition is to be the first major sporting event to positively impact the climate, by halving emissions and offsetting more that they generate.

As public awareness of climate issues rises in the next decade and demand for action increases, transparent reporting about environmental impacts and emissions data (including scope 3 data from spectator travel) will be essential, and the reliance on offsetting emissions will no doubt be scrutinised. It will be interesting to see how future host city bids are assessed by the IOC with regards to climate constraints, geographical locations and timings, as these criteria can only increase in importance.

So, in my opinion the Olympics is going Faster, Higher, Stronger and Greener but our global Race to Zero, is the most important race of all.

References and sources of information

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