Sustainability at mega sporting-events – challenging but possible

On 4 December, the FIFA World Football Museum organized a panel discussion about sustainability at sporting mega-events such as the World Cup and Olympic Games. Three guests from different fields of expertise were invited to discuss the topic from their perspective. It was the last major event of the museum’s 2019 cultural programme and it coincided with the museum’s ‘Foot et Monde Arabe’ special exhibition. The discussion took the last chapter of the exhibition - the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - and placed it into the wider context of planning and executing sporting-mega-events within the framework of sustainability.

With the audience gathered inside the rainbow of member association jerseys, the guests on stage each represented a different background: Martin Müller, academic expert on the planning of mega-events; Delphine Benoit-Mayoux, Impact & Legacy Coordinator and Head of Sustainability for the local organising committee of the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019; and Federico Addiechi, Head of Sustainability & Diversity at FIFA.

Sustainability as a concept
A first consensus was reached on the fact that sustainability was not a universally implemented concept with varied attitudes and range of acceptance around the world. Martin Müller mentioned the the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver as a successful example, where the local community took on the event as a carbon emissions challenge; success was possible due to a high level of cultural interest in environmental initiatives and innovation. This example led to the question of how to measure impact. It was widely agreed that measuring the economic impact is by far the easiest of the three sustainability factors. The difficulty lies with putting a number on social and environmental success. Federico Addiechi elaborated on the establishing of a global carbon trust in Qatar (the first in the Gulf) to be able to use local projects to offset the emissions produced by the World Cup - as was also done for Brazil and Russia.

Respecting principles and leaving a legacy
In relation to Qatar, the panel agreed that sporting mega-events are a good catalyst for provoking change, although there are limits. According to Federico Addiechi the purpose of a World Cup is not to change laws, but to stage an event that is respectful to predefined principles and which leaves a legacy with standards that set an international benchmark. While it is imperative for principles and standards to be kept high, even in challenging circumstances like the labour reform in Qatar, expectations also need to be realistic. This means that although there are limits to the degree of cultural and social change that can be achieved through the organisation of a sporting mega-event in a region – the potential for positive change is there and needs to be grasped.

To optimize the outcome and maximise post-event impact, measures and initiatives are to be factored in from the very beginning. For a World Cup this must start with the bid.

The post-event legacy is also highly dependent on the involvement of the local community with the implemented projects and their post-event continuity. Delphine Benoit-Mayoux gave the example of waste disposal being coordinated between the city and stadiums for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019. An improvement, which remained after the event.

In general, it was agreed that new sustainability projects need to be planned well in advance and with an open mind, since they often are in places and regions where there is no precedent. The copy-paste factor is limited since what might have worked in the past will not necessarily work again in another setting.

Positive impact of sustainability
The panel concluded on the positive note that it is good that everyone generally agrees on the positive impact of sustainability initiatives, which makes the task much easier. Federico Addiechi noted that World Cups are usually hosted by places that are looking to be progressive, so they are open to discussion and improvements, a vision that must be shared by the local population as well as the organisers.