UnSustainable? India’s Bid to Host the 2032 Olympic Games

Earlier this year the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) announced its interest to host the 2026 Youth Olympics as well as the 2032 Summer Olympics while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach had come for a two-day visit to India.

If the decision comes to fruition with India winning the bid, our country would be hosting the world’s largest sporting event (the Summer Olympics is the largest sporting event and the FIFA World Cup is the largest single-sport event). While playing host to the games will indeed boost the country’s image on a global scale as well as increase tourism, its relationship with the environment is a questionable one, going by past record.

With sustainable development becoming the norm, the International Olympic Committee too has its sustainable strategy in place, which is one of the three pillars of its Olympic Agenda 2020. It comprises of 18 objectives across five focus areas: infrastructure and natural sites, sourcing and resource management, mobility, workforce and climate.

Despite the best efforts of both the IOC and its corporate sponsors, the impact of the Olympics on the environment is hard to miss thanks to the massive impact of travel and stay of the athletes, spectators and of course, the frequently new infrastructure that has to be built from the ground up in most cases.

In India’s case too, like the Commonwealth Games of 2010, which went down as one of the most controversial sporting events ever hosted in this country, there are massive challenges to be overcome. Having said that, there is, of course the temptation of a massive infrastructure boost, made to strict timelines, that will be needed to win and keep the bid.

While the record of host cities in meeting their promises has been poor, notably Athens in 2004 with its abandoned facilities post event and Rio with its incomplete promises, carbon offsets have been a useful tool to make up for the environmental impact. And in a country like India, enabling those could also be a workable solution. Both Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010 used offsets to reduce their emissions significantly but even offsets aren’t always guaranteed. The London 2012 Summer Olympics dropped its offset pledge when it could not find any carbon-offset projects in the United Kingdom. The Sochi organizers claimed to have achieved their “carbon neutral” target for the 2014 Winter Games, but others have challenged that assertion, questioning whether emissions associated with construction in preparation for the games were included.

With India’s history of lax laws and the Olympic committee not pressurising its hosts to adhere to its sustainability strategy, even though it claims to give full support to its hosts in terms of sustainable development. The games could have a long-term impact on India’s ecosystem.

Going forward it will be in India’s best interest to adopt strict protocols and perhaps similar standards laid down by the FIFA Worldcup.

As per the FIFA World Cup stadium requirements, all official stadiums had to obtain green-building certification for design and construction. In 2015, FIFA and the LOC reviewed and approved a new green standard for the certification of football stadiums in Russia, which was created with the support of the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

In April 2016, the new Russian certification “RUSO. The Football Stadiums” was presented to the representatives of the host cities, stadium managers, contractors and design agencies.

Thus, the stadiums built are in line with international green-building standards and legal frameworks as well as the FIFA World Cup requirements, international standards, Russian legislation and construction regulations. It includes requirements for architecture, construction, engineering and site plans as well as specifications on Russian environmental norms, energy efficiency and environmental compatibility of the venues.

Furthermore, each host city was required to draw up its own environmental protection plan, depending on how the city would be affected by the ongoing games and what steps can be put in place to mitigate these effects.

For India, that too in 2032, one suspects, it will need to be a lot more steps, with a significant level of non-negotiable elements built in, to make the games sustainable in reality. Be it water and waste management, usage of facilities after the games and accommodation for the athletes, one believes it will take some serious out of the box solutions, and not the usual ‘games village” approach to make it work. The popularity of the ongoing FIFA World Cup, despite the country having a football history that has never been part of a World Cup, is proof of the fact that talk of a missing sporting culture and other excuses are just that, excuses. The truth is that sports have been turned into a completely unsustainable option due to poor urban planning and heavy-handed interventions. The improvements in the country’s performance across various disciplines in recent years are more due to regular aspirations among a few select sportsmen with the motivation and the means, and in some cases, support from corporates, besides ‘natural’ government nurseries like the Armed forces.

So should we wish for a win for India’s bid? With the IOC slated to announce the host city only by 2025,  Iamrenew believes it should be done for the right reasons, and that would mean making the grassroots level changes and commitment to the environment now, to ensure real participation and buy-in from its people. Targets to make changes in time for 2022, the favoured year for big deadlines by our planners, thanks to the year being the 75th anniversary of independence, would be a bonus. Easy ones would be to open up, and demonstrate high usage of currently mothballed, or off bounds sports infrastructure across top cities.  Change the rules on usage of idle playgrounds inside educational and other institutions, even as children struggle to find space to play in urban areas.  Make sports training and education a viable option. Link government support to institutions with sustainability practices and sports infrastructure too. Only if massive changes are visible by 2022, should the bid be pursued seriously.

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