Can a sporting mega-event be Sustainable? A closer look at the FIFA World Cup

With the PyeongChang Winter Olympics just over, what is the next big event for sports fans to look forward to? For many the answer is clear. It’s the FIFA World Cup which will take place in Russia from June 14 to July 15 this year.

Being the biggest single-sport competition in the world, it requires careful planning and allocation of massive resources. Sure enough, in return hosts of the World Cup are expecting to reap economic benefits across many sectors. While profits from tourism, hospitality, and retail are observable and quite obviously can boost local economy (at least in the short run), the question of overall impact and sustainable development is less clear-cut.

What do we know about Sustainability of the World Cup?

FIFA oversees football associations around the world and is therefore well aware of the tremendous effect the World Cup can have on the society, economy and the environment of the hosting country. In the past FIFA had already demonstrated its commitment to sustainability and environmental protection. The first efforts to address the environmental impact issue go back to 2006 World Cup in Germany, where plans of reducing carbon footprints were introduced.

However, there is still work to be done and the biggest challenge appears to be managing the issues outside of the sports arena. The previous World Cup in Brazil in 2014 was dubbed “Copa Verde” – the Green World Cup. Instead, it was heavily criticized for being environmentally unsustainable and exacerbating social injustice. FIFA’s sustainability efforts were focused on green building certifications, recycling and water conservation, while air travel emissions and extensive usage of private fossil-fuel vehicles (due to undeveloped public transportation systems) created a massive carbon footprint. The lack of social investment and disregard of the needs of local communities triggered a strong public outcry, with thousands of people taking their resentments to the streets. Economic and infrastructural developments brought by the World Cup and subsequent Rio Olympics were not perceived as sustainable or beneficial by the public.

Such reaction from the local population in “the country of football” clearly indicates that the concept of sustainability of sports mega-events should be re-examined. In Summer 2016 FIFA released an update for its sustainability strategy for Russia 2018 World Cup declaring sustainability the critical task for both, FIFA and the Local Organizing Committee (LOC). A 16-page documents outlines the strategy being implemented across three main domains: social, environmental and economic. The goal of the document is to demonstrate a more comprehensive approach to sustainability that goes beyond the limits of the event itself. According to Federico Addiechi, FIFA’s Head of Sustainability & Diversity, new elements of the strategy focus on health and safety, decent work and capacity building, inclusivity and equality, social development, healthy living and sport legacy.

How are these plans being implemented in practice?

‘RUSO’, the Football Stadiums certification standard has been developed specifically for the construction of 2018 World Cup stadiums in accordance with FIFA requirements and Russian legislation. Decent Work Monitoring System was launched in 2016 to ensure that working conditions at the construction sites are in compliance with international standards. As part of Football for Hope initiative that promotes social development through football, four Russian NGOs received funding for their community projects and in summer 2017 Kazan hosted the third edition of the Football for Hope forum. With support of the FIFA Sustainability Team, each of the 11 hosting cities compiled a tailor-made environmental protection plan in order to minimize negative impact on the environment and increase overall quality of life as a positive World Cup legacy. The most popular measures include reconstruction of energy, waste-management and water-supply systems, facilitating usage of low emission vehicles and expanding existing bicycle routes network.

Russia does have a robust public transportation system and as an effort to reduce the carbon footprint the fans are invited to use it for free, when traveling to and between the host cities of the World Cup. For example, Russian Railway has scheduled 728 additional trains that will carry passengers between the 11 cities hosting the World Cup. Free train tickets are already available for booking on the official website. This system has been tested during the 2017 Confederations Cup and proved extremely successful, with approximately 63,000 tickets claimed by fans.

With only three months to go to the start of the World Cup, all the preparations are at the final stage. As seen four years earlier the dissonance between declared sustainability goals and local agenda can undercut the most ambitious plans. According the official reports the sustainability measures are implemented as planned, but only the event itself will show whether FIFA and Russian LOC were able to rise to the occasion and use the lessons learnt from Rio 2014.

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