Can games be green?

With the CIWEM sport and the environment network scheduled for launch later this year, Water and Environment Magazine asked Jonathan Ives to offer a few thoughts on the links between games and the green agenda.

Modern sports stadia are responding to a new environmental agenda

Sport is a useful tool or a powerful weapon, depending upon how you see the world. It is, despite occasional appearances to the contrary, a great unifier, bringing people together locally and globally in a shared joy of competition and excitement. Sports people are among the most recognisable individuals on the planet and sporting governing bodies, not least the International Olympic Committee and football’s international custodian, FIFA, are among the most influential organisations, holding politicians, industries and economies on every continent in their sway.

A vast marketing industry has grown around the understanding that sport has the potential to engage people and present all manner of ideas to them wherever they may be. What could be achieved, one might wonder, if just part of this power were harnessed in the interests of the environment? It is an issue that CIWEM is set to explore through the work of its new sport and environment network, and there is much work to be done if sport is to become part of the solution instead of a rather obvious contributor to the problem.

There are signs that environmental issues are beginning to appear on the sporting radar. A recent issue of WEM outlined some of the programmes across the world of sport but in the UK the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be dominating every sporting consideration for some years to come. Faced with bringing the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen to London, the organisers of London 2012 have at least recognised the scale of the environmental challenge and there is clearly a genuine aspiration to make it “the greenest Games ever”. There is evidence of interesting and innovative approaches to the management the environmental impact in and around the Olympic site, with all aspects of site preparation, building design and construction subjected to environmental analysis. The extent to which these aspirations can be delivered as the Games approach remains to be seen but the fact that a long-term legacy has been central to the whole London 2012 project may yet prove to be its most lasting environmental achievement.

Elsewhere on the international sporting stage, most governing bodies are by now able to point to some kind of environmental credentials. FIFA, which stands alongside the IOC at the top of the list of the most politically and economically influential sporting organisations, has its Green Goals programme. Even that most environmentally questionable of sports, Formula One motor racing, has shown glimmers of green recognition. Formula One supporters will point to the adoption of standard fuels, new emphasis on fuel economy and, of course, the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) that has become a constant feature of race-day commentary. All this, they argue, has an impact on the engineering and design of everyday vehicles, a long-term benefit that builds into an environmental legacy.

It is a significant leap from green recognition to environmental responsibility but, while the claims on behalf of Formula One may be hard to swallow whole, they do at least serve to illustrate the scale of investment available to international sporting endeavour. The Olympic Games, the football world cup and Formula One are all multi-billion-pound operations that are courted by countries and feted by nations around the world. International sporting stars have the brand recognition and access to air time of which presidents, prime ministers and dictators can only dream. Sport – the universal love – and the environment – the universal issue – should be perfectly suited.

However, if we are looking to elite sport for environmental enlightenment there is clearly some way to go. Staying with Formula One, few people with the most basic grasp of environmental and climate issues could have failed to be struck by the abandonment of the recent Malaysian grand prix. As many predicted, running an evening event in Malaysia’s tropical climate for the benefit of a European television audience increased the likelihood of a downpour and it duly came, washing Bernie Ecclestone and his international circus of consumption off the track. King Canute was, of course, sufficiently enlightened to recognise that he could not control nature but Bernie is nothing if not determined and he will let nothing get in the way of his right to make money. His desire, for example, to move Formula One from its traditional European heartland for new venues in the Middle and Far East is motivated by simple commercial concerns; the environmental issues of transporting the whole show from race to race around the world rather than, as was once more frequent, across Europe will have caused him no loss of sleep.

Given that it is played on a vast green sward, cricket should surely be the most environmental of sports but the legacy of the last world cup in the West Indies was epitomised by the Sir Vivian Richards stadium in Antigua. The largest of sporting white elephants, this huge new stadium was built at huge expense in the wrong place, on the wrong scale and at the wrong time with little concern for local needs and local context. Back in town, the Antigua Recreation Ground, which had served international cricket proudly for many years, needed only comparatively minor renovation to do the job, was ignored in favour of grandiosity. That a restored Rec would have been an appropriate venue was admirably illustrated by the recent Test series during which the match was hastily transferred to the old ground when the new one was unfit for play. The new stadium now serves as an illustration of both sporting and environmental hubris on the grandest of scales.

For all these short-comings, are there grounds for hope? There are some signs that the sporting world might yet be persuaded to engage its interest in things other than commercial gain. Aston Villa and Barcelona are not often mentioned in the same sentence but both promote charities on their shirts (Acorns and Unicef respectively) instead of commercial sponsors, suggesting that there is some corporate conscience to be tapped within elite sport. Off the pitch, architects and engineers designing sports facilities and stadia have recognised the need to embrace such concerns as energy efficiency, grey water and public transport as part of their environmental responsibility. Even the growing visibility and success of cycling as a sport, in the UK at least, could be construed as an important environmental legacy if it persuades more people onto two wheels instead of four.

Such initiatives are tiny in comparison to what could be achieved were the power of sport to be harnessed on behalf of the environmental agenda. If elite sport is to be persuaded that its power should be used for the greater good rather than greater profit there will have to be a revolution in the way that the major international governing bodies of sport understand their roles and responsibilities. Our hope lies in our understanding that successful revolutions begin with ordinary people taking to the streets (and the pitches) to make their views known. The future of sport and its engagement with the environment begins at its grass roots where community sport reflects a sense of place, a sense of engagement with people and their surroundings. In the parks and playgrounds of nations around the world sport is used to bring people together. Every day people of all ages and all backgrounds in all nations come together in the name of sport. While they come to play, they also meet to share ideas, shape ideals and change minds.

Let us hope that Allen Stanford’s arrival by helicopter at Lord’s, a venue only a few minutes’ walk from a Tube station, will be remembered as a watershed in the relationship between sport and the environment. The self-appointed great and the good might think that they control sport but their definition of the term is narrowed to meet the interests of the rich and the self-important. Our understanding of sport can be much broader, embracing the sporting interests and environmental abilities of the people who take to the street to kick a ball or chalk stumps on the wall. These sporting communities will ultimately dictate the agendas of the governing bodies but it will take time and they will need help. Sport can be part of the solution but we will have to start close to the ground if we want ideas to grow.


This article was originally published in Water and Environment Magazine (WEM), the journal of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). Read WEM online at

Find CIWEM online at

The Leisure Review, August 2009

© Copyright of all material on this site is retained by The Leisure Review or the individual contributors where stated. Contact The Leisure Review for details.





“A vast marketing industry has grown around the understanding that sport has the potential to engage people and present all manner of ideas to them wherever they may be. What could be achieved, one might wonder, if just part of this power were harnessed in the interests of the environment?”

Cricket's green sward could be setting the agenda

an independent view for the leisure industry








about us

contact us