How sustainable are the Olympic Games?

The International Olympic Committee’s Sustainability Strategy claims to support the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, but according to a new evaluation, published in Nature Sustainability, the sustainability of the Games has declined since 2002.

A team of researchers, led by Martin Müller of the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, evaluated how each city handled the summer and winter Olympics since 1992, and found the Olympic Games up to 2002 were significantly more sustainable than those since.  

According to the authors, this is the first systematic analysis of the sustainability of the Olympic Games.

“In theory, the environment has meant to have become one of the pillars of the Olympic movement, with bidding documents also noting the environmental contributions of hosting a Games,” says Michael Hall, a professor of Marketing and Tourism at the University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand.

“However, the long-term effects of hosting a Games are usually not evaluated or are considered only in narrow terms. Opportunity costs of not hosting the Olympics are usually ignored in assessments while there is a lack of Life Cycle Analysis.”

The team created a sustainability index based on nine key factors (see below) and each host city was given a score out of 100. The average performance was 48/100 and reflected high scores on long-term financial viability of infrastructure and high public opinion, but low scores on budget balance and ecological footprint of new infrastructure.

Key factors of the sustainability index:


  • New construction
  • Visitor footprint
  • Event size


  • Public approval
  • Social safety
  • Rule of law


  • Budget balance
  • Financial exposure
  • Long-term viability

“The social dimensions of the Olympics in particular have long been a problem,” says Hall.

“Given that Olympic Games are often used as part of urban renewal and regional development projects insufficient attention is usually given to the effects of such events on housing and on existing communities.

“Community change often occurs with inadequate concern for the social wellbeing of existing communities with gentrification and development focused on localised real estate development rather than consideration of social impacts.”

The highest performing Games were Salt Lake City 2002 and Barcelona 1992, and the lowest-performing Games were Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016.

One way the authors recommended that these scores could be improved is by reducing the number of spectators. This could lead to smaller venue sizes and lower ecological and financial costs of new infrastructure.

They also suggest that rotating the Games through a specific list of host cities could decrease the need to build new infrastructure, and instead rely on reusing infrastructure that is already there.

Finally, they recommend that an independent body could be set up to monitor and enforce sustainability practices of the Olympic Games by host cities.

“There is currently strong resistance among Olympic stakeholders to such reforms,” the authors note in their paper, “as these could jeopardize revenue flows (in the case of downsizing), reduce the universal appeal of the Olympics (in the case of rotation) and impose stringent, non-negotiable commitments to sustainability (in the case of improved sustainability governance).

“Until such actions are taken, however, cities and countries should rather spend public money on other measures to achieve sustainability, not on the Olympic Games.”

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