How Green Were the 2016 Summer Olympics?

Well, the Rio Olympics ended two days ago, but since we still have four years until Tokyo, it's okay to talk about green efforts leading up to and during the Games.

I'm a big fan of watching the Games, although I missed a lot of the coverage last week, as I'm sure most everyone else in Louisiana did. I've got my fingers crossed I can still watch events On Demand, so I can catch up on my synchronized swimming viewing. I'll always be in awe of gymnastics, especially considering I can't even balance on one foot in yoga class on a flat surface, much less on a four-inch beam. (A fact I thought about during yoga class last night as I fell over during crescent lunge twist!)

But back to the point of all this - how sustainable were the Rio Olympics, really? There were a few different articles talking about the efforts the city and country took to make the Games eco-friendly, but does it balance out the overall impact? With thousands of athletes flying in and requiring additional resources, it can be tough to truly consider the Games sustainable.


The medals

The Brazilian Mint created 5,130 medals for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The medals comprise 30 percent recycled silver and bronze, while the ribbons are made from 50 percent recycled PET (aka, made from plastic bottles). The recycled raw silver is 92.5 percent pure and is sourced from leftover mirrors, waste solders and X-ray plates. 40 percent of the copper used in the bronze medals came from waste at the Mint itself.

The gold medals are mercury-free and meet sustainability criteria from extraction to refining, as well as meeting strict environmental and labor laws.

Photo credit: IOC/Ian Jones via

The plans

According to this infographic from Inhabitat, the Rio 2016 Commission planned to use modern technologies to mitigate carbon emissions; offset carbon from all athletes and staff traveling by air; and clean up the waterways in and around the event locations.

Public art projects highlight plastic pollution, using tons of recycled plastic bottles as sculpture materials. One sculpture is the Plastic Madonna, made from 5,000 plastic bottles collected in Rio de Janeiro. It was coordinated by Dutch social enterprise Dopper with the support of local organizations and government, and built by Brazilian artist Eric Fuly, based on the design by Dutch artist Peter Smith. Plastic Madonna was unveiled in Rio’s Botafogo Beach and now is in one of the city’s public parks, with the intent to bring awareness to plastic pollution.

Photo credit: Dopper/Eliseu Fluza via PlasticsNews
About 143 pounds of recycled plastic bottles were also used to build an Olympic Rings sculpture on Copacabana Beach.

The opening ceremony

During the opening ceremony, Rio shared a video on global warming that was, unsurprisingly, met with both positive and negative reactions.

According to the Washington Post, Brazil has about one-third of the world’s rainforests, and more than half the Amazon rainforest lies within its borders. Significant portions of the land has been lost to deforestation, and drier, hotter weather is expected to affect the rainforests even more in coming years. However, frequent storms and heavy rains could further threaten Rio’s terrible water quality.

During the parade of nations, each of the 11,000 athletes were handed “Seeds of Hope,” which consisted of a seed of a native Brazilian tree and a cartridge of soil. The athletes then brought the plants to the main stage where they were placed in mirrored towers that later erupted into green. The explosion of color represented the growth of the Athletes’ Forest that will eventually be planted with the 207 species of trees, one for each country represented.

And the problems

When Rio bid on hosting the Olympics years ago, they promised to host the greenest Games yet. However, many sources have pointed out that they didn't live up to their own expectations.

"It was supposed to be the Green Games for a Blue Planet." 

The highest profile broken promise, according to Vice, means large amounts of untreated sewage is still flowing into Guanabara Bay, where the Olympic sailing events took place. Olympic organizers had said 80 percent of the wastewater around the Bay would be treated by the time the Games started. Officials admitted that the new sewage treatment plants that have been installed will clean up only 48 percent of the waste, but it the real figure could be even lower.

A lagoon in front of Olympic Park contained a lot of dead fish, partly from sewage being dumped into the connected waterways.

The carbon footprint from an event as big as the Olympics will always be large, but the efforts each city makes can help somewhat. Even if Rio didn't accomplish its own promises and goals of cleaning itself up for the Olympics, the truly important takeaway is whether they continue to work toward their goals after the Games are over.

Making a real impact doesn't happen through a short-term effort or a PR spin. It will take time for the city to become more sustainable, but it's something all cities should be working toward, whether they have international media attention or not. 

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