Mega Sports Events Have Mega Environmental and Social Consequences

38 Pages Posted: 15 Oct 2019

See all articles by Gina Warren

Gina Warren

University of Houston Law Center

Date Written: June 2, 2018


Mega sporting events — like the FIFA World Cup, the Olympics, and the Super Bowl — promise fame and fortune to the host cities, with the lure of funding for new infrastructure and community projects and a boost in tourism for the event and beyond. Just as the athletes compete in their sport’s biggest showcase, cities dream of urban revitalization, an improved economy and a better quality of life for residents. Past experience has shown, however, that host cities do not always reap the benefits from these events. Instead, these events can generate significant environmental and social consequences.

The environmental consequences involve everything from building new stadiums, hotels, parking lots and other infrastructure to handling the sanitation from all those toilets. Carbon emissions that contribute to climate change are a significant factor. While some organizers tout policies for offsetting carbon emissions generated by an event, this is little comfort in a time when the world needs to reduce carbon emissions, not just offset extra carbon being generated by the event. Further, the offsets do not account for the heaps of trash and food waste, energy consumption to power the stadium, water consumption for toilets and to irrigate the fields and nearby areas.

The social consequences are equally significant including everything from social segregation to a failure to follow rule of law. The ambition of hosting a mega sporting event tends to encourage cities to relax their rules for urban development and restructuring. This may be because of the short timeframe for hosting the event, or it may be that cities receive significant internal and external pressure to satisfy their obligations for the event. In the run up to the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, for example “flash votes” were held without the usual mandatory public debate, resulting in the demolition of two national historical structures. This not only reflects a disregard for community involvement, it is also disconcerting because much of the cost for these events is borne by public funding. And, further adding insult to injury is the fact that most local residents cannot afford to attend these mega events, which are targeted toward the elite foreign traveler.

Little legal framework exists to regulate these transient pop-up cities created by mega sporting events. While there are a handful of United Nations treaties on sports, mostly recognizing the general right to participate in and have access to sporting and recreational events, no international treaty addresses the social, economic and environmental externalities of these temporary events. The closest is Agenda 21, adopted by United Nations member nations in 1992 (and adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 1999), which provides a genral framework for environmental sustainability through improved socioeconomic conditions, conservation and management of resources and strengthened community participation. Agenda 21 does little, however, to address the unique temporary nature of mega sporting events.

With more sporting events on the horizon than ever before, it is time to more holistically address the negative consequences. So what might work? One possibility is the use of social licenses, a concept that originated with mining and energy industries operating in developing nations. After unbridled environmental damage – and the ensuing reputational hits – during the 1990s, the World Bank encouraged the industry to use social licenses. These social licenses, which are essentially ongoing agreements with local governments and other stakeholders to indicate local acceptance of a project, helped identify and address concerns about the environmental and human cost of the transitory mining and drilling activities.

Over the last few decades, societies around the globe have begun to shift to a more informed and involved form of decision-making, with an eye toward sustainable practices. Social licenses are part of that, legitimizing stakeholder decisions and providing a framework for managing expectations. This article will explore the benefits of social licenses, but argue for adoption of a more substantive legal framework that cities can rely upon to encourage a fair allocation of the benefits and costs associated with the event. Establishment of a legal framework would help to avoid event seizure and emergency-type behavior that can create significant social and environmental harms to host cities.

Part II will discuss the allure of mega sporting events and how reality is far from the illusion of splender. While most cities believe that the sporting event will bring them fortune and prosperity, in most instances it only brings hardship and harms – particularly to the lowest socio-economic groups.

Part III will review the current framework for sustainability, which includes corporate social responsibility measures implemented by some sporting associations and an optimistic international framework that was adopted by the International Olympics Commission, but has fallen well short in its efforts.

Part IV will analyze the two main culprits that have aided in generating the greatest social and environmental harms to local communities. First, it will discuss the “emergency mindset” utilized by sporting associations and the local politicians to sidestep protective legal mechanisms. Second, it will outline what has been termed “event seizure” and discuss how outside forces have reached in to take control to the impair local community benefits and inclusiveness.

Part V posits the idea of adopting the elements associated with social licenses to operate previously utilized by the mining and fossil fuel industries when extracting minerals in emerging countries. This section sets forth recommendations for a preemptive legal framework to combat against the environmental and social harms outlined in the article. Some of the key elements of the legal framework would include full disclosure and transparency of process and information; full community involvement in the decision-making process; ongoing communication and commitment to sustainability; and longevity of community investments plus a procedural mechanism to ensure the current ruling regime adheres to all legal provisions.

Part V concludes that mega sporting events have created serious environmental and social harms to citizens within the host cities and encourages potential host cities to consider implementation of a framework that will provide some level of structure if and when their city becomes the next mega event host.

Keywords: energy, environment, social, climate, sports, olympics, international

Suggested Citation

Warren, Gina, Mega Sports Events Have Mega Environmental and Social Consequences (June 2, 2018). Missouri Law Review, Vol. 85, No. 2, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Gina Warren (Contact Author)

University of Houston Law Center ( email )

Houston, TX 77003
United States


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