Save the Olympics for the locals
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Save the Olympics for the locals

Champs-Elysees Avenue shops sell souvenirs advertising the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris on Saturday. REUTERS
Champs-Elysees Avenue shops sell souvenirs advertising the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Paris on Saturday. REUTERS

The presence of the 2 million or so fans who will travel from abroad to attend the Paris 2024 Olympic games will be felt in the city's stadiums. Unfortunately, it will also be felt by the climate.

According to Olympic organisers, spectator travel will generate about a quarter of the carbon emissions associated with holding the world's biggest sporting event.

It's a longstanding problem that didn't originate with the Paris Olympics. But Paris, like previous games, has embraced sustainability as a core principle. Along the way, it's made good progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to venue construction and operations. But it's done little to address overseas spectator emissions.

An attainable, if radical, solution would make future games far more enjoyable and accessible: Keep it local. Limit most ticket sales to residents of the host city and surrounding areas while providing some access to regional fans who travel most sustainably.

The argument for taking action is clear: At the 2012 London games, spectator-related emissions, most of which were air travel-related, clocked in at 913,000 metric tons, or 28% of the 3.3 million tons of carbon emitted during the games (that's equivalent to the annual emissions of about 696,000 typical American cars). Four years later, the organisers of the 2016 Rio Olympics estimated that overseas spectator travel would generate a massive 1.72 million metric tons, or 38% of the emissions associated with the games (final numbers were never released).

While it would no doubt be scary for the International Olympic Committee to take on travel-generated emissions, the organisation does have a real-life example of the impact it could create: Tokyo 2020. As you'll recall, the pandemic delayed those summer games a year. Organisers, desperate to limit viral transmission, ordered a 70% reduction in overseas personnel allowed to travel to Tokyo. According to a post-games analysis, that reduction (not including athletes) cut associated air travel-generated CO2 by nearly 79%, from 165,051 metric tons to 35,365 metric tons. Meanwhile, overall carbon savings from prohibiting most spectators totalled 800,000 metric tons, according to the IOC.

In 2021, a widely cited Nature study on Olympic sustainability argued that downsizing the games would reduce the attendance -- and environmental impacts -- of spectators. It's a good idea, but dialling back the size of the games would mean penalising the athletes whose events would be eliminated and reducing the overall importance of the Olympics on the world stage. Switching to a model of regional attendance would avoid such sticking points while also creating some important benefits, chief among them an engaged local fanbase who will lend the games a true flavour of their home country.

Games populated almost entirely by foreign tourists have long been a thorn in the side of locals. In Paris, for example, opposition to the games has been significant, driven in part by frustration over the traffic and price gouging that comes with the influx of fans. An Olympics expressly designed to entertain the locals should erode some of that opposition, and perhaps expand the number of cities willing to host the games.

In addition to host city residents, tickets could be made available to regional fans who can reach the games via rail. For Paris, that would expand the ticket pool to the whole of France and many other European countries. Fans who can only reach the games via air travel would have their access severely limited and be subject to environmental surcharges (to offset their impacts). Yes, doing so would limit overseas attendees to the wealthy. But realistically, the steep cost of attending a distant Olympics is already cost-prohibitive for most people.

The most determined fans would likely find and buy tickets on the secondary markets. But on-site authentication would dissuade all but the biggest risk takers from showing up at the airport. It's certainly doable on a technical level; professional teams in the US occasionally impose geographic restrictions on ticket sales when they want locals -- not hostile visiting fans -- cheering on the home team.

Of course, there will still be Olympic discontent, starting with airlines and hotels that hope to profit from Olympic tourist traffic. But those profits might not be quite as important as they think. Economists studying hotel occupancies around mega-sporting events find that these events often simply displace other tourists who travel elsewhere rather than deal with the games. Paris appears to be the latest example. Earlier this week, Air France-KLM projected a 14.8% drop in foreign arrivals to the city during July compared to last year. The airline blames the Olympics.

That's an accidental win for the climate and for Parisians. To keep the streak going, the Olympics need to think like a local. ©2024 Bloomberg

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of sports. He is the author, most recently, of 'Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale'.

Adam Minter

Writer

Adam Minter is an American writer based in Asia, where he covers politics, culture, business and junk.

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