Playing the Field

How to Save the Olympics

In a world of short-term political thinking, big sporting events offer the perfect chance to spend on technological innovation

5 min read

Olympic park in Rio de Janiero
Image credit: Brian Godfrey // CC BY 2.0
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Delays in construction, political unrest, water pollution, and the Zika virusthese are just some of the problems facing Rio de Janeiro as it prepares to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games in August 2016. Many are questioning whether the city is up to the task, with some even suggesting that the Games be postponed or moved.

While these issues are partly specific to Rio, they highlight a larger question that more and more cities looking to host a major sporting event must answer: Is it worth it?

After all, as Rio struggles with its preparations, plans for the 2024 Games have already seen major setbacks. Two early favorites to host, Boston and Hamburg, have pulled out. The same fate befell the 2022 Winter Olympics, when organizers were forced to give the Games to Beijing despite the city’s notable lack of snow. (The other option, Kazakhstan’s capital Almaty, was unviable.) This doesn’t even touch on the issues facing tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted in Qatar in 2022 despite the need to air condition each brand new stadium in the desert country’s blistering, 104° F [40° C] summer.

With every year that passes, it seems that fewer cities want to host international sporting events in the face of ever-increasing costs–Rio will spend upwards of $10 billion on the 2016 Games–and the disruption required to put on a good show. This is a major problem for both top-level sports and global society at large: Massive sporting events aren’t just an opportunity for athletes to compete at the highest level, they’re also part of an essential cultural phenomenon that brings different countries together in friendly competition. We don’t want to lose that.

So, what can we do?

As an effect of the spiraling costs of these events, the bodies tasked with arranging them are promoting side benefits as a way to offset the costs. Sustainability is one of them, and it makes sense–huge sporting events have huge environmental impacts, and everything from the FIFA World Cup to the Olympics to the US Open now has its own sustainability plan to make those competitions more economically (and politically) viable. Different methods for improving sustainability range from the use of integrated waste systems, solar-powered stadiums, and proposals for offsetting carbon emissions.

But even with this renewed focus on the environment, problems still arise. While Brazil aimed to make sustainability a focus of its FIFA World Cup in 2014, the effort was generally seen as a failure–as ambitious plans for new public transport systems and carbon-neutral stadiums were abandoned because of their difficulty. Beijing’s promise to make its Winter Olympics in 2022 carbon neutral hasn’t quieted the controversy over awarding the Games to the city. Even if these competitions become more sustainable, it doesn’t combat the belief that too much money is being wasted on one-off events. After all, the modern history of the Olympics is one of beautiful, state-of-the-art sporting venues left abandoned and overgrown once everyone’s gone home.

But organizers of one upcoming Games–the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games–have proposed an idea that might actually fulfill the promise of a sustainable event and, in turn, show that it’s possible to justify the expense of hosting.

The governor of Tokyo, Yoichi Masuzoe, has been investing millions into the development of hydrogen power technology for the city’s transportation system–that is, using liquid hydrogen as a “clean” fuel instead of gasoline or other fossil fuels. With Japan facing a huge energy crisis since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, hydrogen power has increasingly been seen as a suitable option for the country. Unlike batteries or solar power, a liquid hydrogen transport system would look a lot like a gasoline one: People would drive around in ordinary-looking cars and fill up the tanks of those cars with hydrogen from pumps at gas stations, just as quickly as if they were using diesel.

While hydrogen power has been suggested as a potential clean energy source for decades, it hasn’t yet become a reality. As Julian Spector, writing for CityLab, explains:

“Synthesizing the hydrogen itself is an energy-intensive process, after which it must be super-cooled or pressurized to be transported and used. To get hydrogen fuel to consumers, countries need to invest in infrastructure. And then you have to persuade people to buy a new type of car that runs on a fuel better known for powering rockets.”

Essentially, hydrogen-powered transport requires a huge infrastructure investment–that means plants to generate the power and store it as liquid hydrogen, stations where people can fuel up their cars, and the upgrade of transport fleets to new hydrogen models. The costs involved are prohibitive, and in any normal political environment this is an exceedingly difficult ask.

This is where Governor Masuzoe sees an opportunity in the Olympics. In 2015 Tokyo announced an investment of over $350 million for a fund to subsidize hydrogen fuel cell cars (and the stations to refuel them) before the Games begin. Tokyo’s 6,000-unit Olympic village will even work solely on hydrogen power, with hydrogen buses transporting athletes to and from their venues.

It’s a massive gamble, but Tokyo’s government is using the potential of the Olympics to create longer-term benefits for the city. The unfortunate reality in much of the world at the moment is that politics is increasingly focused on the short term–and unable to dream of bigger, better futures. We’re all too well aware of the growing distrust in government and business around the world, in turn leading to a slow collapse of many of the political systems we take for granted. (Hello, Brexit.)

From the inability to envision a world of zero carbon emissions, to an increasing unwillingness to invest in simple-but-crucial things from transport infrastructure to space programs, it’s difficult to get governments to take risks on massive moonshots. This is where the Olympics, and other big sporting events, can provide space for something different.

These events are unique in that they have to be thought about for longer than an election cycle, and they bring in huge amounts of money and attention to a city or nation over a sustained period of time. This offers a level of political opportunity that simply isn’t available at many other times.

Forget about the empty buildings and the delayed metro upgrades–hosting something like the Olympics can be the perfect excuse to spend massive amounts of money on truly next-generation infrastructure projects, while helping to save the sporting events in the first place.

The reason these athletic events are really suffering is that communities–and rightfully so–no longer see them as worth the cost. In an era of economic austerity and increasing inequality, communities are asking why they should pay billions of dollars for sports stadiums, arenas, and athlete villages that end up empty the moment the games are done. This is particularly relevant to Brazil, where people are rioting in response to having had their homes bulldozed to make way for white elephant stadiums.

What Japan’s hydrogen initiative does differently is focus on more technological, long-term outcomes. As Hiroshi Takahashi, a research fellow and the Fujitsu Research Institute involved in the scheme, told Bloomberg: “The Olympics are a good opportunity to showcase new technologies. It’s also a significant chance to attract new investment and update the city’s transportation system to make it fuel-cell friendly.”

Masuzoe expanded on this when announcing the plan, saying: “This is really an investment for the future. Not just for you. The future of the city, the future of Japan, the future of our globe. I think that it deserves this kind of allocation of money.”

In the end, what could save big sporting events is not a focus on sustainability, or even technology, but a change in mindset. It’s about seeing these events as an opportunity for long-term change, rather than just a one-off spectacle.

But if you want to invest millions in building a hydrogen fuel network, is the Olympics really the best reason? Clearly the answer to that is no. Long-term projects such as these, ones that are about the future of our world, cannot rely solely on the focus of big sporting events.

Yet at the same time, we do know that the “short-termism” of modern politics means that these sorts of future-building projects are few and far between. The state–the only organization that currently has the capacity to make these investments at the level of billions of dollars–is increasingly refusing to do so.

If major sporting events offer some space and impetus for necessary innovation, that can only be a good thing–not just for the events themselves, but for our future technological and environmental advancement. Tokyo’s hydrogen plan is a base blueprint, one other countries should look to iterate on.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Playing the Field section, which examines how innovations in sports affect the wider world. Click the logo to read more.