A greener Tokyo Olympics: myth or reality? (Kai Jun and Yi Yi)

Main article: https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/plastic-podiums-recycled-medals-cardboard-beds-sustainability-tokyo-2020-2021-08-03/

Japan is in the limelight for its sustainability at the 2020 Olympic Games. Athletes were seen standing on podiums made from recycled plastics, receiving medals made from recycled electronics, and sleeping on cardboard beds. In addition, many venues were built from recycled wood, which could be easily torn down and repurposed after the Games. Going beyond reusing materials, transportation services like electric cars were utilised to ferry competitors around the Olympic Village. Carbon offset programmes were even carried out before the Games, with Japanese businesses donating 4.38 million tonnes of carbon credits for going beyond carbon neutrality.

The Games’ sustainability has generally declined over the 16 Summer and Winter Games since 1992, with the 2014 Sochi Olympics ranking at the bottom (Müller et al., 2021). As sustainability has become a hot topic in recent decades, much attention was on Japan to show how a country known for being eco-friendly can negotiate traditionally unsustainable approaches to hosting the Olympics. Japan’s goal was simple. It is to prove to the international community that it is possible to organise the Olympics as a carbon-neutral programme, rethinking how we can deal with excessive carbon emissions in and outside Japan.

Clearly, these sustainability efforts in the Tokyo Olympics highlight Japan’s commitment to going green for the event. Given the high-profile nature of the Olympics, these efforts are seen as the Japanese government bowing to gaiatsu, or “external pressure”. As illustrated by Kirby (2011), the Japanese government has occasionally responded to international pressure to address environmental issues—most notably in 1991 when it amended the Waste Disposal and Public Cleansing Law to emphasise reuse and recycling in the lead-up to the watershed 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. But more explicitly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) contractually requires host cities to commit to sustainability, which is also one of the core pillars of the IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 (Müller et al., 2021). This would explain why the Japanese government has gone out of their way to organise a sustainable Games with recycled materials and carbon reduction programmes.

With that said, these efforts can be likened to greenwashing. Preliminary evaluations from Müller et al. (2021) showed that Tokyo 2020 is actually the third-least sustainable Olympics from 1996 onwards. Additionally, numerous reports of massive food waste in the Games had emerged, countering the organising committee’s claims of sustainability (Brasor, 2021; McCurry, 2021). Moreover, some scientists also cast doubt on Tokyo 2020’s zero-carbon goals, citing that carbon offsets do not actually eliminate emissions entirely; the event was still estimated to produce 2.3 million tonnes of CO2 even after banning spectators (Hahn, 2021; McDonnell, 2021). 

These contradictions in Tokyo 2020’s green efforts point to what Kirby (2011) sees as the unstable rhetoric of sustainability in Japan, where ambitious policies may not always translate to practices on the ground. However, unlike Kirby (2011)’s argument that Japan tends to frame sustainability as a matter of pragmatism and scarcity, Tokyo 2020 is hardly the case. Gaiatsu seems to be the dominating force at play, where the Games’ green practices can be seen as attempting to comply with international standards set forth by the IOC, and part of the wider messaging that the Olympics is organised sustainably—all of which play into the global politics of spectacle that dominates the event. Furthermore, the overspending and resultant wastage from Tokyo 2020 (McCurry, 2021) is far from pragmatism on the government’s part, especially when we consider that the Games were held in a state of emergency amid the pandemic with significant public disapproval. 

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Brasor, P. (2021, August 14). Were the Olympics sustainable? Reports of waste suggest it’s not easy being green. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/08/14/national/media-national/olympics-sustainable-green/

Hahn, J. (2021, July 23). Tokyo 2020 Olympics accused of “superficial” sustainability efforts. Dezeen. https://www.dezeen.com/2021/07/23/tokyo-2020-olympics-sustainability/

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Teo, A. (2021, August 4). Plastic podiums, recycled medals, cardboard beds: sustainability at Tokyo 2020. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/plastic-podiums-recycled-medals-cardboard-beds-sustainability-tokyo-2020-2021-08-03/

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