On August 5th, thousands of athletes from around the world made their Olympic debut during the opening ceremony of the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is safe to assume that each of these athletes arrived with the intention of competing at their highest potential, if not of going home with a medal. What most of these athletes probably weren’t thinking about, however, was that attending these games would place them in the midst of a global conversation about the future of the environment.
The environment first emerged as a central theme at the games when at the opening ceremony the show went from depicting the history of Brazil to depicting the threat posed to the world by climate change. For those who didn’t see it, it wasn’t just a brief reference to a hot topic. A stark message was communicated. The video showed the relatively recent rise of the Earth’s average temperature, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet, and images of the catastrophic effects sea level rise is predicted to have on well known coastal cities around the world.
The theme of the environment maintained its presence during the parade of nations. As each of the 11,000 or so athletes entered Maracanã Stadium, they were handed “Seeds of Hope,” which consisted of a seed of a native Brazilian tree and a cartridge of soil. The athletes then brought the cartridges with them to the main stage where they were placed in mirrored towers that later erupted into green. The explosion of color represented the growth of the “Athletes’ Forest” that will eventually be planted with the 207 species of trees – one for each country represented – in nearby Deodoro.
Even after the Olympics got underway, the environment continued to be a subject of discussion. One of the issues that’s received a good amount of the media attention so far has been Rio’s water pollution. The city has been criticized for allowing large amounts of sewage to flow into the ocean untreated and some athletes competing in watersports took extra precautions, such as putting bleach on their oars and using antibacterial mouthwash.
Fortunately, there has also been a more positive environmental angle present at the games. A number of campaigns have been taking advantage of the global attention on the Olympics to raise awareness about environmental issues. One of those campaigns, for example, has focused on the need to keep the earth’s average temperature increase to below 1.5°C, the aspirational goal set by the world in Paris last year. Using the hashtag #sports4climate and garnering the support of athletes like Brazilian swimmer Thiago Pereira, the campaign is spreading the message that 1.5°C is “the record we must not break.”
The permeation of a discussion about the state of the environment into the realm of sports, particularly at an event like the Olympics, is quite a development. On one hand, it’s a testament to how bad things have gotten. Climate change is now recognized as such a threat to humanity that even events like the Olympic opening ceremony are calling attention to the subject. On the other hand, it also seems to be indicative of an increasing level of environmental awareness. Regardless of why it’s happening, it seems like it’s mostly a good thing that the environment and the Olympics are coming together.