The world of international sports events is making pledges on sustainability, yet the score remains people 0, profits 1

Awash in both global popularity and money, big sporting organisations, and huge sporting events such as the World Cup and the Olympics, are facing scrutiny as never before. Cries for ethical reform, greener competitions and more equitable gains from sporting events are growing louder.

“Professional sports are big business and global sports events even bigger,” says Kirk O Hansen, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. “They are major commercial and even diplomatic events. As such, they must address the same range of issues big business faces, from human rights to corruption to sustainability. Unfortunately, some international sports governing bodies are still run as personal fiefdoms or cottage industries.”

Brazil’s loss, Fifa’s gain

Football has 2 billion fans globally, and for them the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) promised that the 2014 World Cup in Brazil would be the “Cup to End All Cups”. Fifa probably meant this in terms of excitement and thrills – yet in the sense of money spent and money earned, it definitely was momentous. World Cup host Brazil spent an estimated $12-14bn to prepare for the games, including building or renovating 12 stadiums, as well as on other infrastructure and security. However, the country will realize only “small” and “fleeting” long-term benefits from that large outlay, according to Moody Investor Services .

Green flags or red cards?

In environmental sustainability, football’s 2014 World Cup, organised by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), was supposed to excel. Greening of stadium design is an ongoing theme globally, and Brazil took the opportunity of the World Cup to modernize, with, according an agreement between Fifa and the Brazilian government, all 12 of the new or refurbished stadiums seeking Leed (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. So far, six have achieved certification, while the others are still in the process of being certified. At the Estadio das Dunas in Natal, louvres in the stadium shell help direct cooling breezes to spectators, while at the Estadio Maracanã, a Teflon cover gives 95% of stadium seats cooling shade. Three stadiums were fitted with solar panels.

These green building efforts are of course only a small part of the environmental sustainability of a World Cup-sized event. In Brazil, 700 workers were hired across game venue cities to be “waste pickers” and recyclers, and the government allocated $1m to cities to deal with waste generated by the “Fan Fest” game parties.

In mobility and transport, Brazil promised much more than was delivered. Airports were expanded in game-venue cities and roads leading to those airports were improved but Bus Rapid Transit systems and two monorail projects were not completed in time for the World Cup.

Fifa estimated that the World Cup would generate 27.5m tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Of that, Fifa is offsetting about 300,000 tonnes, and the Brazilian government set up a certificate programme that has companies offsetting about 400 tonnes thus far. Fifa committed to offset 100% of its own operational emissions and, with BP Target Neutral, a not-for-profit carbon management programme run by British energy company BP, it launched an online system where ticket holders worldwide were able to sign up to have their carbon footprints neutralised.

Fifa has included environmental impact goals in the contracts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups scheduled for Russia and Qatar respectively. These two host countries will follow the same approach as in Brazil, says Fifa, including a series of informal consultations with civil society stakeholders conducted by the Fifa and the Local Organising Committee’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) team to validate the sustainability strategy in both countries.

Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 tournament has been dogged by controversy on several fronts: the feasibility of playing football in summer temperatures of up to 41C (106F), the conditions for migrant workers building the World Cup infrastructure, and allegations of bribery and corruption. The impact of the games on the environment has also not escaped scrutiny.

To counter the environmental concerns, Qatar has set a number of ambitious goals. Chief among them is to use innovative stadium design and cooling systems. As part of its $42.9bn World Cup development plan, the country also will build an air-conditioned transit system to ferry fans to the stadiums. What’s more, Qatar has promised to make its tournament the first carbon-neutral World Cup – and clearly will face challenges in generating sufficient solar and renewable energy to meet its ambitions for green games.

Finding a viable path

While the eco-sustainability efforts around World Cup 2014 might be summarised as a “mixed bag”, sport in general is doing more than ever before to find a path to environmental sustainability.

One highlight is the US National Hockey League (NHL) releasing its first sustainability report, which is the first sustainability report from any professional sports league. The NHL recognised some time back that without winter weather (as well as abundant fresh water to create indoor rinks), ice hockey can’t expect long-term viability. The NHL used Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines, and collaborated with Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to create a report that benchmarks the status quo and sets meaningful goals.

“The report is arguably the most important statement about the environment ever issued by a professional sports league … it will be noticed worldwide,” Hershkowitz says. “The focus on controlling fossil-fuel use and GHG emissions is a mainstream wake-up call that climate disruption poses an existential threat to everything we hold dear, including sports and recreation.”

The NHL as well as major league baseball and football leagues in the US are also making huge investments in solar power for stadiums. Five NHL arenas now supply a portion of their power needs for the facility by using on-site solar power or lower-emission energy sources, such as biogas fuel cell technology. At Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles American football team have 2,500 solar panels installed.

Though Hershkowitz doesn’t say so, the NHL’s sustainability report could be seen as a direct result of the efforts of the powerful International Olympic Committee, which has put increasing emphasis on the environmental dimensions of the sustainability of sports events. In fact, environmental concern is the third “pillar of Olympus” as outlined in the 1994 update to the Olympic Charter, and the IOC’s 2012 report “Sustainability Through Sport” identifies a number of ways to include people involved in or fans of sport in catalyzing sustainable actions for the environment.

At the Sochi 2014 winter games in Russia, for instance, Russian green building standards were created for the first time, and for the first time in the history of the Olympic games, Sochi 2014 voluntarily offset not only its own carbon footprint but also that of the flights of athletes, spectators and media representatives .

Sochi evictions

In the 2014 Winter Olympics, human rights organisations alleged that the local population of Sochi were subject to forced housing evictions, illegal land appropriations and the cutting off of their water supply.

In response, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) says it has a “systematic and ongoing relationship” with Human Rights Watch (HRW) to follow up on any alleged abuses of human rights in association with its events. With the Sochi games, HRW called on the IOC to insist that Russia stop the illegal eviction of people from their homes without adequate compensation, and that the Russian construction company protect migrant workers hired to build the infrastructure and pay them withheld wages.

Human rights abuses

A number of NGOs have been critical of the human rights impact of giant sporting events.

In Brazil, one of the most egregious results of the World Cup was the reported eviction of thousands of residents – Al Jazeera estimated 250,000 were at risk – by a government bent on improving appearances in run-down slums and urban areas. In many of Brazil’s World Cup hosting cities, the cost of living has risen and mobility has worsened rather than improved.

In addition to the evictions, Brazil has had accusations of slave-like conditions for workers labouring on World Cup-related projects, as has faced concerns about child prostitution increasing with the influx of international tourists.

Worse, the Qatar World Cup is on course for at least 4,000 migrant worker deaths by the time the tournament starts, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, and has had serious allegations hurled at it of keeping guest workers on World Cup projects in dangerous slave conditions, leading to politicians and human rights workers calling on Fifa to take action.

In the wake of the global outrage over the conditions of the migrants following a Guardian newspaper investigation into workplace abuses in the Gulf State, Qatar promised in May to eliminate key elements of its controversial labour laws. This includes eliminating the country’s “kafala” sponsorship, which ties workers to a single employer. Government officials have pledged to abolish the kafala system and replace it with a contractual relationship between employer and employee. Human rights groups, however, are sceptical, given the lack of detailed proposals, that this will lead to a real reform to the system.

Fifa has called Qatar’s labour law reforms “a significant step in the right direction for sustainable change in the workers' welfare standards in Qatar”. A Fifa spokesman says: “We look forward to seeing the implementation of these concrete actions over the next months.”

Whose responsibility is it?

Although it might not be a sport organisation’s sole responsibility to improve the cities where mega-events are held, there are many human rights organisations, labour rights groups, and others who have found the World Cup, and the actions of Fifa and corporate sponsors, to be far from a positive catalyst for social progress. In Brazil, for instance, street vendors complained that Fifa, and its multinational sponsors, created a 2km exclusion zone within which only “concessionaires” had access to the lucrative market of hungry and thirsty fans in and around stadiums. Further, these exclusion zones were policed by private security companies which reported to Fifa, prompting human rights groups to warn of potential rights violations.

Sports organisations such as Fifa may wish to distance themselves from the governments of host countries but the fact is that their actions, or lack of them, are inextricably linked to the games. If not undermining state governance, powerful groups such as Fifa may well be hiding behind it when they say that they do not have responsibility for the actions of host nations, argue some critics.

Amanda Cahill-Ripley, a law lecturer at Lancaster University in the UK, says there has been some positive engagement within human rights by Fifa, although these have occurred outside of World Cup events. In 2004 to mark Human Rights Day Fifa joined forces with the World Health Organisation to distribute cartoons and pamphlets via five of Fifa’s national football associations, in Botswana, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia, to address stigma and discrimination relating to HIV/Aids. It also organised events in these countries to promote education and awareness-raising among young people.

Cahill-Ripley also cites the 2012 London Olympic and Para Olympic Games for demonstrating the positive influence the IOC can bring to bear. London was the first candidate city to commit, as part of its bid document, to setting up an independent body to monitor and assure sustainability of the 2012 Games. The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, created in 2007, engaged with exter¬nal stakeholders and provided assurance on many social and human rights issues includ¬ing diversity, health and safety, and supply chain standards. It conveyed stakeholder concerns over the ethical standards of several sponsors.

In another example, during its bid for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Vancouver Organising Committee (Vanoc) committed to the partic¬ipation of the First Nations, on whose shared traditional ancestral land the event was held, and signed formal agreements with the four host First Nations, recognising the First Nations’ title and providing for their involvement in all aspects of the Games, including planning, delivery and legacy. According to the Institute for Human Rights and Business, this led to IOC recognition of aboriginal peoples as Games partners, a C$59m (£32m) boost to aboriginal business opportunities, and profiling aborig¬inal culture and athletic success.

A sustainable legacy

As part of the Olympic Agenda 2020, a number of potential reforms are set for deliberation at the Extraordinary IOC Session in December this year. A reform to the Olympic Games bidding procedures is among them, and places a new emphasis on the legacy aspects of host city bids and how that can be brought to the population of the city as well as the surrounding area. Potential hosts would have to demonstrate how the Games would be a part of the long-term development plan for the city and region, including the social and environmental aspects of the development.

The IOC itself points to a number of governance measures that it says have been put in place over the past decade, such as: external and internal audits, a finance commission reporting to the Session, Session proceedings open to the media, the publication of its financial accounts, good governance at the heart of the Olympic Charter, an independent Ethics Commission composed of high profile external personalities, a Code of Ethics and specific rules of conduct for each bid process, and collaboration with governments and other agencies such as the World Anti-Doping Agency and Interpol.

“We do not hesitate to take the necessary sanctions if the rules have been violated,” says IOC spokesman Andrew Mitchell. “The records of our decisions on ethical matters, the number of tests and positive results at the Olympic Games, and the adoption of new referring/judging systems by a number of sports are clear testimonies of our commitment to good governance.”
Wolfgang Maennig, an Olympic medallist in rowing and now a sports economist, says the IOC’s “reform agenda” will produce important ideas on how to make the Olympics far more sustainable.
Massive sports events, he says, have become far too expensive and showy, with their “landmark architecture” designed to impress but creating “white elephant”. Maennig believes an improved selection process, with grassroots participation, would help host cities and countries democratically decide whether they even wish to host events, and then far less extensive, expensive events should be held.

A hazy future

Amanda Cahill-Ripley says the tension between sports and Olympic ideals and the reality of games in practice – i.e. being a big business – leads in part to both the “unpredictable decisions” and to the human rights abuses that take place in the lead-up and execution of events such as the Olympics and the World Cup.

“The human rights impact of such mega events is huge and affects both civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights,” Cahill-Ripley says. “In terms of changing practice for future events the outlook is not good. The question of sustainability and legacy are broad and complex ones which involve more than just adherence to human rights standards.”

Cahill-Ripley says that while huge events can be beneficial in raising awareness over human rights issues, for example highlighting sex trafficking in the 2006 World Cup or HIV/Aids in South Africa in the 2010 World Cup, it isn’t always followed up by concrete actions to address the issues.

“I think there is a lot of rhetoric about paying heed to local communities, which is not always played out in practice,” she says. “Sadly, there does seem to be a repeating pattern of abuses each time there is a mega sporting event. There needs to be an overall explicit strategy on human rights at the level of the sporting governing body and encompassing all actors involved.”

One promising step in the right direction: in 2013 the UN Human Rights Council adopted a Resolution on Promoting Human Rights through sport and the Olympic ideal, which established a mandate for an Advisory Committee to prepare a study on the possibilities of using sport and the Olympic ideal to promote human rights for all. A progress report was scheduled for the Council at its 27th session in September 2014 .

The Olympic Charter makes some reference to human rights, including Rule 51.3, which provides that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or areas”. Under the principles of Olympism, the goal is “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. Another principle asserts: “The practice of sport is a human right.”

The 2013 Resolution calls for the holding of a “high-level interactive panel discussion to highlight, examine and suggest ways in which sport and major sporting events, in particular the Olympic and Paralympic Games, can be used to promote awareness and understanding of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the application of the principles enshrined therein”.

“Presumably,” says Cahill-Ripley, “the thinking behind this move was to emphasise and encourage the positive impacts of such events, and perhaps to examine in some depth the negative effects experienced to date with a view to making recommendations for improvement in the future.”

Amy Brown and April Streeter are associates of One Stone Advisors. A Certified B Corporation, One Stone has a global team offering sustainability consultancy and communications expertise, based in Stockholm, Edinburgh, Sydney, Portland and Washington DC.

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