Sustainability at the Tokyo Olympics

Hello everyone! Elizabeth here, STARS intern for the Office of Sustainability. Did you watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics this weekend? Have you been tuning into the games as they go? Although the Summer Olympics were delayed a year because of COVID-19, the fun and games have officially begun in Tokyo, Japan. Over 11,000 athletes will be competing in forty one different sports and a total of 339 events.  

When I was younger, I was fascinated by pictures of abandoned Olympic stadiums. They were so BIG, and I couldn’t wrap my middle-school mind around the fact that these stadiums that had once held thousands of people and had millions of eyes on it are now completely desolate and full of graffiti. I just thought it looked cool, but now that I know more about the environmental impacts, abandoned stadiums have somewhat lost their charm. 

Any event the size of the Olympics has a massive carbon footprint, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has noticed. This has been an ongoing conversation which has culminated in the IOC Sustainability Report, a Sustainability Policy, and some defined Sustainability Essentials. All of those documents and more can be found on the Olympics Sustainability page. In this post, I’m going to explore all of the ways the IOC is incorporating sustainability into this year’s games. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of them! I’ll break it down by category: Energy, Reusing/Recycling, and Sustainable Development Goals. 

Logo depicting the IOC’s commitment to sustainability. Image courtesy of International Olympic Committee.

Energy: Event organizers purchased 150% of the carbon credits needed to offset the carbon emissions that an event of this magnitude produces, so not only are the Olympics carbon neutral, they’re actually offsetting more carbon than they’re producing, making this year the first carbon-negative Olympics! 

There are also several ways the Olympics are utilizing renewable energy. The Ariake Urban Sports Park, home to the BMX & skateboarding events, is powered entirely by renewable energy produced in Fukushima, which is approximately three hours away. More information about this park can be found on the official Olympics website. Hydrogen fuel is used to power electricity and provide hot water in Olympic Village, as well as keep the Olympic and Paralympic cauldrons lit. In an effort to make sure that the facilities are used for as long as possible, the Village will be converted to hydrogen-powered shops, a school, and more! 

Perspective image of the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo. Image courtesy of

Hydrogen power was new to me when I began my research for this article, so I turned to the U.S. Department of Energy to learn more. According to the Department, hydrogen is a clean fuel that produces water when consumed. It can be produced by a variety of sources (including biomass, natural gas, wind, or solar energy) and is used to provide a variety of things like transportation, heat, and water; the IOC is making full use of this versatile energy source. 

Reusing/Recycling: When it comes to venues, it has been historically common to build new facilities for the games, and that is what made my fascination with abandoned Olympic stadiums possible. The stadiums were built, held thousands of fans, and then left behind when the games were over. Of course, that is not the case for every venue. This year, the majority of the venues Tokyo has chosen to use were first established the last time it held the Olympics in 1964, with updates for reducing energy consumption. Ten venues are temporary structures that have been designed and built to reduce construction costs and energy consumption. Much of the office furniture and electronic equipment has been rented instead of purchased.

The medals awarded to the top three athletes in each event (5,000 in total, between the Olympics and Paralympics) are made from metals found in the nearly 87,000 tons of electronics donated by the Japanese public. This was exciting to me, because if not disposed of properly, metals can leach into the soil and find their way into waterways, where they can be toxic to plants, animals, and humans! According to the Olympics News, donation collection boxes were placed in post offices and members of the public were able to donate their old phones, specifically,  at over 2,000 stores across the country. 

This image is from Olympics News and shows the gold medal awarded to athletes that take first place in their event.
Examples of gold medals (made from recycled electronics) that will be presented to athletes at this year’s games. Image courtesy of Olympics News.

Disposing of old electronics responsibly is surely important, but finding ways to recycle the electronics is much more environmentally friendly. But what if you are not looking to make 5,000 Olympic medals- how can you do it? If you live in Ames like I do, uBreakiFix on Duff Ave. is one place you can take your old electronics to recycle them for free. Best Buy also recycles electronics. If you do not live in Ames, you can also call your local electronics store to ask about electronics recycling options. Regardless of where you live, it is important to check ahead and inquire about what electronics are accepted and any associated fees. 

Recycled plastic is a key player in the games too- the torchbearers in the torch relay wore clothing made from recycled Coca-Cola bottles; read more about the sustainability aspects of the unique design in this Dezeen article. The podium that medalists stand on will also be made of recycled plastic. This June 3 tweet from the Tokyo Olympics that shows how the podium is made and assembled. Personally, I love that the video summarizes the entire manufacturing process- it is so interesting to see all of the various stages of the process. 

This image, from Dezeen, shows the recycled beds that athletes will sleep on in Tokyo.
Olympic athletes in Tokyo will sleep on beds made of recycled cardboard. Image courtesy of Dezeen.

Athletes will sleep on beds made from recycled cardboard, but the recycled materials do not mean sacrificing quality! The beds can hold up to 200 kg, or 440 pounds. Dezeen, an architecture and design magazine, offers details of the bed’s design on their website.

Sustainable Development Goals: The Tokyo Olympics has connected many of their sustainability goals to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals were adopted by all of the UN member nations in 2015 and provide a common agenda for global partnership. The IOC Sustainability Strategy  identifies goals that are the most closely related to the Olympic games –  3 (Good Health and Wellbeing), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), 13 (Climate Action), 14 (Life Below Water), 15 (Life on Land), 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions), and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals). Of special focus are Goals 3, 4, 5, 16, and 17. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, the Live Green! Newsletter had an entire series about the SDGs: go to the Newsletter Archives and read all about them! 

 This image, from, depicts the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

There are 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Image courtesy of United Nations.

It is comforting to see the world’s largest sporting event make these commitments to sustainability. It shows that it is possible for events of this magnitude to incorporate sustainability into the event, and I am excited to see if other sporting events and venues follow. Now that I know about all of the amazing things happening at the games, I am even more excited to watch. I will certainly be keeping my eye out for all of the sustainable actions I described here, as well as watching these athletes do what they do best. If you would like to follow along with the Olympics, you can find more information about the games at the Olympics website, their Facebook page, and their Twitter profile.

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