Analysis Sport and the climate crisis

World cup, Olympics, Asian games. The absurdity of climate-killing global sporting events

Skiing in the desert, single-use stadiums... And yet the World Cup in Qatar is not the only major sporting event to have an environmental impact. More such climate bombs are in the pipeline. In a world beset by global warming, are these events still appropriate?

Published on 8 December 2022 at 12:16
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Air-conditioned throwaway stadiums, "shuttle" flights to get to the matches – the football World Cup in Qatar is casting a harsh light on the ecological excesses of big sporting competitions. "These events bring together hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world for a few weeks of travel and consumption on sites that have sometimes only just been built," observes Carole Gomez, a specialist on sport in international relations.

In their wake, greenhouse gas emissions are exploding, particularly due to air travel. FIFA estimates that the World Cup in Qatar will produce 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, as much as the emissions of Iceland and Montenegro for one year. Previous World Cups in Russia, Brazil and South Africa were similarly disastrous, with emissions exceeding 2 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. These abstract figures, which are underestimated, represent a concrete and tangible contribution to climate change.

The preparations for major sports events typically involve much destruction. Infrastructure (sports venues, hotels, motorways, airports, etc.) is built at the expense of valuable wild spaces. For the Winter Olympics in Russia – held in 2014 at the seaside resort of Sochi – the state-owned company Olympstroy built a motorway through the forests of the Caucasus, parts of which are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites. In South Korea, four years later, the Mount Gariwang forest, made up of thousand-year-old trees and considered sacred by some locals, was partly destroyed to make way for ski slopes. Then, after the athletes had gone, Gangwon Province did not know what to do with the new facilities.

A wind of revolt

In their current form, "these competitions are a waste of money in a world on the brink of collapse, where the average temperature in France could be 3.8°C higher than at the beginning of the 20th century," says Jérôme Santolini, a coordinator of France's Scientists in Rebellion. This group, representing scientists from all disciplines, is taking a stand against climate inaction. "We are in a state of complete uncertainty, except for knowing that the scale of the catastrophe will depend on our choices today. Sports competitions cannot be taken out of the equation."

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By highlighting these environmental absurdities, might the Qatar World Cup be a wake-up call? "We are living in an important moment," says sports economist Christophe Lepetit. A wind of protest is blowing, on the theme of "never again". Criticism is rife, including from footballers. Ordinary people are pledging to boycott matches so as to deprive FIFA of its main source of income: television rights. Alternative events are being organised throughout the World Cup.

This disavowal "undermines Qatar's strategy of extending its regional and international influence by using the popularity of a major sporting event", says geopolitics expert Carole Gomez. "The country has underestimated the scale of the pushback, given people's growing concern about environmental disasters and human rights." Does it amount to a threat to such competitions? "One could imagine that if their reputation were to be tarnished, no country would want to host these events. This trend of rejection can already be seen in the case of the Olympic Games, where applications from prospective host cities are becoming increasingly rare," she says.

Asian Winter Games in the Saudi desert

The decision-makers – i.e. international bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or FIFA – are carrying on as if nothing has happened. The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is the tree that hides a forest of ugly plans. For example, the next tournament in 2026 will be played by 48 teams, not 32, with matches split between Canada, the United States and Mexico.

"FIFA has imposed such gigantism that individual countries no longer want to take on the organisation of a World Cup," remarks Pierre Rondeau, a sports economist. According to the British daily The Times, following the Spain-Portugal duo and the Uruguay-Argentina-Paraguay-Chile quartet, now Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Greece are preparing to submit a joint bid to organise the 2030 World Cup.

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