“We need a fit planet for sustainable sport” - An interview with IOC Director for Sustainability Marie Sallois

As part of a four-year collaborative partnership between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and IUCN, we interviewed Marie Sallois, IOC’s Director for Sustainability, on the occasion of International Day for Biological Diversity to hear first-hand how the IOC is contributing to biodiversity conservation and why sustainability is considered a priority for the organisation.

International Olympic Committee headquarters

Sustainability, along with youth and credibility, is one of the three pillars of Olympic Agenda 2020 – the strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic Movement. Why is sustainability so important for the IOC and how are these three priorities interlinked?

At the IOC, sustainability is a working principle that guides all our activities. When making decisions, we do everything we can to maximise their positive impact and minimise any negative impact in the social, economic and environmental spheres. We ask ourselves: do they help advance our vision of “building a better world through sport”?

This is why, when we built our new headquarters – Olympic House – we  made sure that it was one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. And while all upcoming Olympic Games editions have committed to being carbon neutral, we have recently announced our decision to make the Games climate positive from 2030.

Of course, this kind of approach means that sustainability is also closely linked to our other key priorities: credibility and youth. Today the only way to be credible is to make sustainability integral to one’s work. And as the world emerges from the coronavirus crisis, sustainability will only gain in importance.

Youth accounts for a huge proportion of the world’s population. Whether we succeed or fail in realising our sustainability ambitions, young people will be the most impacted. Young people are also increasingly concerned about the state of our planet. In order to stay credible and relevant, we must engage with them. It is through the practice of sport that youth can learn valuable life lessons such as fair play, respect, integrity, teamwork and resilience.

What are the main opportunities for biodiversity conservation in the world of sports?

We see nature conservation as our responsibility, but also an opportunity: in fact, the world of sports can have a lasting, positive impact on biodiversity. By choosing the right location for their events, implementing sustainable sourcing and using low-carbon modes of transport, event organisers can change business as usual and influence the way other events are planned and delivered.

At the Olympic Games Rio 2016, for example, the construction of the Olympic golf course helped enhance the biodiversity in the Barra da Tijuca area of Rio. Although the site of the course had protected status, 70% of its surface had been degraded by illegal sand-mining. Despite initial concerns of local environmentalists, the development of the golf course led to a 167-percent increase in vegetation cover and a net increase in biodiversity, with the number of species – such as burrowing owls and caimans – going up from 118 to 263.

The Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Village will be built to the highest environmental standards. It will include about seven hectares of gardens and parks and it will be built in a way that protects and fosters biodiversity – rooftops, for example will be built to house insects and birds.

Sport also has a unique ability to reach, unite and empower millions of people globally. The world’s top sporting events are some of the most watched events in the world, bringing enormous visibility: coverage of the Olympic Games Rio 2016 was followed by half of the world’s population, for example. And athletes are powerful role models that inspire others and lead by example. This is an opportunity to bring the world together and to raise public awareness of sustainability issues and solutions.

How has the IOC’s approach to biodiversity evolved since it started its collaboration with IUCN?

Our partnership with IUCN, the world’s largest environmental network, has taken our work to a new level. IUCN has helped us look at environmental protection as an opportunity – and not just a way to minimise risks.

The series of Biodiversity and Sport guides that IUCN has developed as part of our partnership has shown how the sports community can avoid potential negative impacts on nature while contributing to its conservation.

IUCN also provides expert advice on the candidature process for the Olympic Games from 2024 onwards. Before a new Olympic host is elected, IUCN looks at the candidates’ plans for venues and infrastructure, helping us identify any potential environmental risks. By doing this early in the process, we are able to make any necessary changes before it’s too late.

What role is the IOC playing in promoting more sustainable sports events?

As the leader of the Olympic Movement, our objective is to help International Sports Federations, National Olympic Committees and Olympic organisers develop sustainable sport worldwide.

We team up with some of the most respected organisations to achieve this. Apart from IUCN, we partner with UN Climate Change, and have jointly developed and launched the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. Its aim is to create an agenda for sport to address climate change. More than 120 sports organisations have joined the framework since its launch in December 2018.

We publish technical guides, organise workshops, and provide technical support to sports organisations within the Olympic Movement. Our Sustainability Essentials, for example, is a series of guides designed to give them a general understanding of various aspects of sustainability, such as climate change, sustainable sourcing, the reduction of plastic pollution, and ways in which they can be addressed.

We also work with individual athletes to leverage their reach and influence to promote sustainability through sport. For example, we have supported British sailor and Olympic Champion Hannah Mills in the launch of the Big Plastic Pledge, which is a global campaign to unite athletes and fans around the issue of plastic pollution.

What is your key message for Sports Federations, other actors and sports associations?

Sport depends on clean air and water, and healthy ecosystems such as mountains, rivers and oceans. Given the pressures our planet is under, we can no longer take any of this for granted.

This means sustainability is not a “nice to have”. It is – or it should be – an integral part of any major sporting event or organisation. And any organisation that is not serious about sustainability will struggle to survive. Sustainable sport requires us to keep our planet fit.

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