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Sport and Environment

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January 21, 2018

Sport and Environment

Today, Sport and Environment Conservation is high on the sustainability agenda of nations. Although indispensable, sports offers opportunities for personal and professional growth, promotes health, academic achievement, brings nations together, cuts across barriers of religion and gender but on the other hand sport is claiming more territory and endangering natural landscapes. Numerous animal and plant species are under threat, water bodies are at risk, a leading cause for environmental damage. Furthermore, the use of non-renewable resources, the emission of harmful substances during the building and operation of sports facilities, commuting to and from these facilities, the production and disposal of sports equipment all play a key role.

During the World Conference of Sport and the Environment hosted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), with United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), IOC President Samaranch said, The International Olympic Committee is resolved to ensure that the environment becomes the third dimension of the organization of the Olympic Games, the first and second being sport and culture.

In recent years unprecedented growth in sports has been observed. Greater focus from governments, increased participation across all age groups, health issues, higher income, more leisure, greater mobility have formed the basis for major and continuing changes in sport. Although, governments, sports authorities, environmentalists, scientists, conservation groups, businesses and industries are already dealing with this issue, what is extremely important is our individual and collective responsibility towards conserving environment while participating in sport thereby leaving a legacy for the future generations.

Critical factors with respect to the effect of sports activities on nature are the extent, intensity and type of sport being pursued as well as the resilience of the natural area/resource being used. In principle, the use of nature for the purposes of sport should stop at the point where the type of activity concerned considerably affects or damages nature or the environment landscape.
For making sports facilities more ecology friendly, it is important that

  • representatives of sport and those promoting nature conservation and environmental protection
    join forces and draw up guidelines for sustainable development in sport;
  • promote and further develop forms of sport which are compatible with nature and the environment;
  • make sports-related infrastructure more environmentally compatible;
  • strict compliance of environmental standards by government and agencies funding sports facilities
  • incorporate environmental management into the work of sports administration, clubs, associations and commercial sports operators;
  • voluntary commitments should be given priority for achieving conservation aims. Authorities, sport organizations should provide information on ecological aspects as it will provide greater clarity for those involved and encourage a considerate attitude to nature and the environment.

Sustainable Development of Sport and Environment

Clear distinctions in the following can enhance planning and sustained environment conservation –

  1. Nature and type of Sport (Elite Sport/Recreational Sport)
  2. Sport Facilities (infrastructure/ stadia – indoor and outdoor/natural environment)
  3. Sport Equipment (manufactured goods /natural resources/playfields/arenas)
  4. Sport Mobility (transportation and commuting to and from sport facilities)
  5. Environmental Education

Sports facilities

Nature and type of sport, indoor and outdoor facilities affect the environment in a variety of ways. Compared to sports halls, outdoor facilities require much more space. How this space is treated is of considerable significance to the environment. On the one hand, the wrong choice of location, improper care (over-fertilization, irrigation using drinking water, etc.) and unnecessary soil sealing can cause the loss of valuable habitats and affect the soil and the water balance. On the other hand, if environmental criteria are taken into account during the planning, building and maintenance of an outdoor sports facility, this can upgrade the area ecologically.

Sports halls require only about 5% of the area taken up by outdoor facilities. Excessive energy consumption and water use are the prime causes of environmental damage in the case of sports halls. A stadium in Germany utilizes 400,000 kWh of energy per year. Today, reduction of energy consumption in sports halls is mainly concentrated on heating/hot water supply systems, heat insulation and lighting. Practical examples show that there is considerable potential in sports facilities for saving energy and water. In order to exhaust this potential, modern, resource saving technology must be installed and user habits must be changed. By saving valuable resources, sports facilities designed and run on an environmentally compatible basis can contribute enormously towards sustainable development and climate protection through reduction of C02 emissions.

Outdoor recreational sport

People pursuing recreational sports activities in nature or countryside mainly come from towns. Both traffic and the activities themselves can cause considerable damage to the environment. If cities offer more opportunities for games, sports and physical activities, it will ease the pressure on the natural landscapes and lower harmful traffic volumes.

In order to reduce the damage to endangered locations, authorities should provide areas of recreation in resilient landscapes and nature conservation bodies. One such joint initiative between authorities and citizens is Raahgiri in different cities in India whereby on weekends citizens have access to sport and physical activities after banning traffic from certain roads. Shifting car parks and providing space for games and activities is another option.

Defining maximum permissible group sizes, restricting activities to those spaces which do not pose any threat to endangered natural areas is another option to conserve nature. Declaring certain areas of natural landscape off-limits (e.g. banks of watercourses, stipulating specific routes along watercourses), defining the use of the sport equipment for that particular area, usable power sources or imposing the requirement of producing specific qualifications can be considered. Alternate attractive manmade areas can be developed.

Sport and physical activity in built-up areas

In built-up areas, people pursuing sports activities are required to be more mobile. This is mainly due to the geographical separation of working, living and leisure areas. In order to solve the growing problem of traffic in towns, adequate and attractive opportunities for sports, games and physical activities for all age groups must be created near residential areas. If places providing sports can be easily and safely reached by bicycle or public transport, it will reduce ecological damage due to traffic and cater to the needs of children, the disabled, and the elderly and other groups which do not have regular use of a car.

Sport and mobility

Sport is responsible for a significant proportion of all leisure traffic. Mobility in sport today is primarily ‘auto mobility’. Sport thus contributes considerably to traffic volumes and thus also to climate change. Already, more than half of total distances travelled by cars are travelled during leisure time, of which in turn, according to a Swiss study, 25% are linked to sport. It is therefore extremely important to develop and increase the popularity of more environment-friendly forms of mobility.
Reaching new locations (sports facilities or country side areas) demands greater mobility especially for activities pursued in nature. Since most people have to travel short or long distances in order to pursue these kinds of activities, sports and tourism are today more closely linked than ever before. Nowadays, sport is often even the principal reason for travel (e.g. skiing, trekking, rafting, adventure sport holidays), and in other cases the activities offered are at least an important factor in the choice of travel destination.

The sustainable development of sport requires not only the avoidance of unnecessary traffic, but also provision and use of means of transport that are the least harmful to the environment.

Sports equipment

The growth of sport and its continuing diversification into new kinds of activity has exploded the market for sports equipment. The development of new sports equipment revolves around aspects of function and fashion. For the sake of greater functionality in sports equipment, material is often used which causes substantial ecological damage even at the time of manufacture and disposing off.

Supply and demand influence each other in the sports article industry too. On the one hand, the industry has adapted its products to the serious changes in sports and leisure and responded to the consumer’s changed preferences. On the other hand, the industry has helped to shape sports trends and consumer behaviour by means of new and ever more spectacular products. Against this background, marketing sports equipment without paying heed to the environmental damage it causes and advertisements showing behaviour that is damaging to nature and even, in some cases, unlawful is particularly problematic.
Sport equipment manufacturers, suppliers and dealers have to work together to ensure production of recyclable products, developing functional and recycling systems.

Environmental education

Environmental education has become one of the major future tasks of mankind. In 1977, UNESCO declared that environmental education should be an all embracing, life-long process which actively involves individuals in the solution of specific problems.
In sport too, the importance of the ‘future task of environmental education’ is now undisputed. Avoiding and reducing sports-related environmental damage requires the active involvement of those who pursue sports activities. Environmental education should both encourage environment-friendly attitudes and habits among people doing sports and ensure that planning and legal measures for the protection of the environment are widely accepted by generating understanding among people doing sport.

Environmental education is an important approach towards resolving and avoiding conflicts between environment and sport. Environmental issues have now become part of the curricula of schools, higher education institutions, civic bodies, local authorities and numerous sports organizations. Schools carry special responsibility as far as environmental education is concerned. Developing mindsets in a structured framework will enable the young minds to confront ecological problems and find solutions in a systematic manner for a life time, individually, for society and the country as a whole.


Sport can make its own important contribution towards bringing about the model of sustainable development. To achieve this, governments, sports organizations and others involved in sport must discuss and apply this model intensively in their work.
Rising number of users and the greater and more intense use of nature and resources (land, energy, water etc.) have undeniably increased the damage to nature and the environment by sport. At the same time, however, the range of strategies and measures for avoiding and resolving conflicts between sport and nature conservation and environmental protection, is broader than often recognized.

In the search for solutions all parties involved must cooperate. This concerns above all sports and nature conservation, commercial sports, politics and administration, trade and industry. Without the constructive collaboration of these groups, it will hardly be possible to find effective and generally accepted solutions.

For more details

Mona Shipley is a Social entrepreneur, Change maker and Sport for Development expert with over 18 years of progressive experience in education sector. Formerly at the British Council for over 15 years she has expertise in Business Development with Private/ public sector and strategic engagement with Ministries and Policy heads in India and UK. She has headed various transformative, bilateral programmes leading to reforms within the schools, higher education and vocational education sectors. Physical Education Cards, PEC and Connecting Classrooms are some of the key innovative programmes meeting global standards she led on with a buy-in from MHRD and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport. Other key organisations she worked with closely are UNICEF, UNESCO, DFID, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), London Olympics Organising Committee (LOCOG) Youth Sport Trust, UK Sport, Special Olympics, National College of School Leadership UK, School Standards Inspectorate bodies OFSTEAD and Qualifications and Curriculum Authority QCA , UK. She has represented India and the British Council as a speaker on various National and International forums. Is an Aspen institute of Leadership Scholar – awarded to leading thinkers, innovators contributing to their country’s development.

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