Fairtrade gold medals for Rio 2016?

Sensemaking / Fairtrade gold medals for Rio 2016?

Duncan Jefferies looks into progress on sustainability in major sporting events, and asks whether London 2012 can claim any credit.

By Duncan Jefferies / 19 Jul 2013

All 225 medals to be handed out at the Utrecht European Youth Olympic Festival will contain a drop of fair gold, as part of Solidaridad’s ‘On Our Way to Good Gold’ campaign, which promotes the compliance of artisanal and small-scale mining groups with the Fairtrade and Fairmined standards.

One year on from London 2012, public debate about its legacy is taking off again. Are fair gold medals the sort of initiative for which its efforts to raise the bar on sustainability can claim any credit? Not directly: Solidaridad, the European Youth Olympic Festival and the city of Utrecht were working to improve the social and environmental impact of the sporting landscape long before 2012.

But now, three-time Olympic gold medal winner Pieter van den Hoogenband, an ambassador for Solidaridad's campaign, is calling for the gold destined for the medals at the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro to be mined in a fair and responsible way. If his campaign is successful, the sustainable procurement standards pioneered at the London 2012 Games may have played a role.

The environment became the third sporting pillar of the Olympics way back in the early 1990s. Since then, several summer games have claimed the ‘green’ mantle, including Sydney and Beijing. But this doesn’t always translate into a lasting legacy of sustainability for the host city, or for future events – as any of the smog-plagued residents of Beijing can tell you.

There were disappointments in London, too – notably the scrapping of a 130-foot wind turbine in 2010, which robbed the Olympic park of a highly visible symbol of sustainable energy. The environmental credentials of some of the sponsors were also questioned. And LOCOG fell short of its target to recycle 70% of the waste arising from Olympic venues (managing around 62%).

But that’s not to downplay the achievements of London 2012. It was the first Games to be monitored by an independent sustainability body; the first to set sustainability standards for food at most venues; and the first to measure its carbon footprint over the entire Olympic and Paralympic project term. Now, the city now has the largest new urban parkland built in Europe for 150 years, and 99% of the material required to build and decommission the games venues has been reused or recycled. Not bad. 

But perhaps one of the most far-reaching legacies of London 2012 will be the sustainability standards the organising committee pioneered. These mean that questions about impact will routinely be considered at an early stage in planning future Games. For example, ISO 20121 will help to ensure that events of all sizes are duty-bound to create a positive economic, environmental social impact. Energy consumption and material waste will be minimised, and long-term planning emphasised. This standard will be used for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, and Rio 2016. The medals will certainly pass under its lens.

Those who doubt that the long-term impact of the London Games on East London will be impressive were recently dubbed “lega-sceptics” by Boris Johnson. He was speaking at the Beyond London 2012 Awards ceremony, which took place at City Hall earlier this week: the same day, in fact, that the first Fairtrade gold medal was hung around the athlete Zsófia Bácskay’s neck.

Frankly, anyone who has seen photographs of the dilapidated stadiums in Athens, or the empty Bird’s Nest in Beijing, is bound to be nervous about the future of the Olympics Park. All the wildflowers and Wireless Festivals in the world can’t guarantee that it will emerge from its cocoon of fencing as a true centre of sustainable living.

London 2012 offered the UK a significant opportunity for green leadership. The question is, are the country’s leaders making the most of it today?  

Duncan Jefferies is Assistant Editor, Green Futures, and a freelance writer.

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Photo credit: Solidaridad

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