/ 8 June 2024

Global sporting events must end harmful partnerships to protect people and planet

Olympics 2020: Madrid, Tokyo And Istanbul Bids Too Close To Call

What is it with major sporting events and partnering with those who harm people and the planet? The African Cup Of Nations partnered with TotalEnergies, well known for its human rights abuses on the continent, and the last Fifa World Cup was held in Qatar, where human rights abuses are well documented

The latest in this unsavoury trend is the Olympic Games and its partnership with Toyota. After promising to be the “most sustainable games” ever, the event is maintaining its sponsorship deal with the car manufacturer, which is likely to come to an end after this year’s spectacle. 

The organisers of the games have pledged to halve the competition’s carbon footprint, in comparison to previous Olympics. This means emissions must be less than 1.75 million tonnes of carbon. Previous games hit 3.5 million tonnes, according to the organising committee. 

While it is commendable that it is taking up such initiatives, partners must be on the same page. Steps taken by the organising committee include using existing infrastructure, scaling up renewable energies and recycling initiatives. There are also plans for the use of bicycles, plant-based foods and less single-use plastic, for example. 

But together with Toyota, the organisers released the following statement:

“Toyota, the Worldwide Mobility Partner of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), has delivered the first vehicles for the official fleet that will support the Olympic and Paralympic Games Paris 2024.”

This is something that drew the ire of current and former Olympians. By way of a statement, several Olympians said the following:

“Instead of phasing out combustion engine vehicles in line with settled climate science, Toyota is ramping up production – it plans to add more than 11 million to the roads this year.  This means Toyota’s emissions are massive: at a self-reported 575 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, the company already has far higher emissions than France, and they’re rising.

“Toyota continues to lobby governments to delay, weaken, and roll back essential climate regulations. According to a report by InfluenceMap released in May this year, Toyota is the worst company in the auto sector in this regard, holding back progress everywhere from the US to Australia. Less than 1% of Toyota’s car sales last year were electric, while other major car makers like BMW already reached 15%.”

The statement went further and said that less than half Toyota’s vehicles are fully battery-electric, and most of the rest run on petrol.

This means the emissions of the games will increase, making the goal of halving emissions incredibly difficult. There is also the issue of public perception, as it will undermine the messaging of electric vehicles, “thinking 100% fossil-fuelled hybrid cars are EVs.”

It sounds as though there is a case of sportswashing taking place. Sportswashing is described as the use of an athletic event by an individual or a government, a corporation, or another group to promote or burnish the individual’s or group’s reputation, especially amid controversy or scandal.

The athletes welcomed reports that Toyota is ending the partnership with the Olympics, and the hope is that it will also cut ties with the Paralympic organising team. 

The overall hope is that global sporting events end all partnerships with companies harming our climate.

“In 2024, giant polluters lobbying against the public good, and against the fundamental interests of athletes in a safe climate, should not be granted the privilege of partnering with the Olympics and Paralympics. This year must be the last time the world’s biggest polluters are allowed anywhere near the Games,” said the athletes. 

It is important to make the distinction between climate and sporting events. Heat and pollution are both tough aspects that will make athletes struggle. 

This is a prudent time to remember that the climate affects such events. The Qatar World Cup and the Afcon both had to be moved to a time when the weather was more moderate.  

The 2020 Olympic games saw marathons and race-walking events moved to other venues as participants would not be able to cope with the high temperatures. 

“The women’s Olympics soccer finals were not only rescheduled, but the stadium was changed due to extremely high temperatures – a first in the history of the Olympics. In addition, an archer fainted and three tennis players retired during their matches due to heat-related illnesses,” said the athletes 

Failure to address climate change will see more and more events rescheduled, moved, and ultimately, the athletes will be the ones who suffer. Partnering with those guilty of destroying our climate helps no one, it subtly points to condoning their practices. A stand must be taken. 

The statement by the former and current athletes sum this up the following way:

“As the eight-year contract between Toyota and the IOC comes to an end after the Paris Games, it will be time for Toyota to pass the baton to a clean Olympics mobility sponsor.” 

These are the Olympians who penned the letter to the Olympic organisers: 

Marcelien Bos de Koning – Dutch sailing Olympian

Laura Baldwin – British sailing Olympian

Dotsie Bausch –  American cycling Olympian

Jenny Casson – Canadian rowing Olympian 

Francesca ‘Frankie’ Clapcich – Italian sailing Olympian

Rhydian Cowley – Australian race walking Olympian

Melissa Humana-Paredes – Canadian beach volleyball Olympian

Philippe Marquis – Canadian freestyle skiing Olympian

Eliza McCartney – New Zealander pole vault Olympian

Etienne Stott – British slalom canoe Olympian