March 10, 2023
So many aspects of our lives can have a more or less negative impact on the environment. Usually, however, sports are not considered one of them. What could be wrong with wanting to be outdoors and in contact with nature? Perhaps our enthusiasm for the activities we practice leads us to gloss over the negatives, which we need to be aware of instead.
A recent article  tries to bring attention to the component of travel with respect to our sports activities: if in order to do our bike tour we have to take a plane to California, surely the travel will be the largest component of our carbon footprint. In a similar way, the increasingly dry winters we are experiencing are “forcing” the winter sports enthusiasts to move more and more to find the best snow. Travel, however, is not the only component to consider if we are to weigh the impact of our activities.
Another fundamental aspect is to consider the facilities we need to practice it. Looking at winter sports, an example is cross country skiing, which trivially will be less impactful than alpine skiing because it does not require energy-intensive facilities such as ski lifts and slopes covered by artificial snow.
The issue of the environmental impact and cost-benefit discussion of facilities sports is very timely, especially looking ahead to the upcoming Winter Olympics in 2026 to be held in Italy. It has happened before that for Olympics cathedrals have been built in the desert: exaggerated facilities that remain systematically unused after the event and fall into neglect. An example of this are the facilities built for the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, with facilities that remained abandoned after a short time . Also those of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens are not a good example, with massive stadiums and swimming pools that have become a symbol of modern reckless overbuilding .
Fig. 1: 2004 Athens Olympic Softball Stadium – shown abandoned in November 2018. Photo by Evanonthegc from Wikimedia Commons.
For the upcoming Milan-Cortina 2026 Winter Olympics we are in a similar situation, where for example, environmentalists have fought to stop the resurfacing of the Bobsled track in Cortina, proposing instead the one in Innsbruck, which is already usable. Unfortunately, the decision has been made and more than 85 million euros will be spent by the state (and thus by us taxpayers) on the new facility .
Fig. 2: Cesana Torinese – Pariol bobsled track, site of the bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions of the 20th Winter Olympics of 2006. It has been unused since 2011. Photo by Bumba from Wikimedia Commons.
The Materials and Equipments
A final aspect that we can consider, trying to understand the environmental impact of a sport, is the required equipment. If we compare sports such as running, where all you need is a pair of shoes and some clothes to practice it, to the formula 1 obviously there is no story. But there are less obvious factors to consider. Instead of running we might think of hiking, where we would need clothing to protect us from the elements, probably made in GoreTex. Unfortunately, the waterproofing of these fabrics is provided by perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are highly polluting and also called “the forever chemical” because of their long half-life . Currently, neither Patagonia, a famous environmentally conscious sportswear brand, is managing to go without PFASs, but has set a goal to stop using them from 2024 . Finally, a recent investigation by Le Monde has raised the issue related to these pollutants, which you can see that are widely spread in waterways throughout Europe via the interactive map available on their website .
Physical activity gives many benefits to our lives, but that is not a reason why the world of sports should not take on its responsibilities. Understand that if even a simple waterproof jacket causes such significant damage to the environment, the awareness and the right information are indispensable to deal with modern advertising slogans, enabling us to make decisions that reflect our environmental awareness.
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 PFC-Free, PFAS-Free, PFO-Free & PFOA-Free – Patagonia. (n.d.). https://www.patagonia.com/our-footprint/pfc-free.html
Cover- and preview image: Cesana Torinese bobsled track – Pariol, site of the bobsled, luge and skeleton competitions of the 20th Winter Olympics. Photo by Bumba from Wikimedia Commons. freely licensed for commercial use.