Paris 2024: The green Olympic games

How sport has the power to act in the climate crisis

Matt Readman

CSO Dark Horses


It never rains but it pours. With two major wars raging on the borders of Europe, a society struggling to find its feet after a pandemic, a housing crisis, a cost of living crisis and an ever present climate crisis it’s little wonder that this week official data showed that, at any given time, 20,000 of us are signed off sick for mental health reasons every month.

Out of all these disasters, the climate crisis poses the biggest long-term threat to the most people. Yet despite polling data consistently showing it is a concern, it’s in danger of being deprioritised by more immediate problems. This won’t be a surprise to marketers—we know that humans are famously bad at tackling things that are perceived to be far off.

It’s not just that climate is a more distant threat, apathy also comes from message fatigue. Climate protests are now more likely to get our wrath than our attention. UN warnings zoom past us. And yes, we know this was the warmest year yet. The challenge is that people are programmed to shy away from messages they don’t like. We need a fresh message that instils positivity and hope.

The Olympic Games has an ability to capture our collective attention like no other event on earth.

Matt Readman, CSO, Dark Horses

There is one event this year that has the potential to reinvigorate the climate fight - the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

I say this not as a sporting romantic but as a cynic. Professional sport is a terrible thing for the planet. Football alone contributes about 30 million tonnes of CO2 per year - that’s about the same as a country such as Denmark. The Olympic Games in Rio and London both created around 3m tonnes each. Paris is the greenest Games yet but will still contribute an estimated 1.5m tonnes. How then can this event possibly help in the fight against climate change?

Firstly, since its conception, this Games has been engineered not just to be eco-responsible but act as a shining light of what is possible. It’s designed to show the benefits of a cleaner, greener world, not just a reminder of what we need to give up.

It’s set to be the first major sporting tournament to actually benefit the environment not harm it. It will protect biodiversity, be run off a circular economy and adapt to the climate change that’s already in place. These Games are not giving the host city new facilities or buildings but a new way of life, including 1000km oc cycle lanes, 200,000 new trees and a River Seine so clean you can (hopefully) swim in. The narrative here is not on carbon off-setting, this is a demonstration of how all our lives could be permanently better in a way that is visibly achievable.

Secondly, the Olympic Games has an ability to capture our collective attention like no other event on earth. The last four Games have all exceeded viewing figures of 3 billion people. The chance to reach close to 40% of the global population in a two week period is something that only comes around once every four years. When our media viewing habits are becoming more fragmented and polarised, the chance for everyone to see the same thing at the same time is becoming increasingly rare.

Finally - and this is where the romantic perhaps does make an appearance - the Olympics remind us all of what humanity can achieve. For a short time only we become fascinated by these strange beings who have dedicated their lives to niche acts of contortion, athleticism and skill. We can’t help but be inspired and reminded of what actually we are capable of as a species if we put our minds to it.

It’s no surprise then that from this platform brands are playing their part. Toyota is providing a 100% electrified fleet, Coca-Cola is trying to reduce plastic by 50% vs London and has installed over 700 water and soda fountains at venues. EDF will ensure that all energy supplied will be 100% renewable. Air France will match voluntary contributions to sustainable aviation fuel. Airbnb is arguing that by helping 130,000 Parisians turn their homes into accommodation they are saving the equivalent construction of 257 new hotels. When construction is happening, official contractor Vinci is aiming to reduce emissions by 40% by using low-carbon materials.

Many brands might be nervous about joining in. Using sport in connection to climate change is risky. The sport you’re supporting is almost certainly a contributor to the problem; and it’s easy for sponsor brands to be accused of using sport for greenwashing. Tokenism won’t work here.

Instead, brands need to use sport in a different way. Sport is at its best when it’s capturing our collective attention and inspiring us with what is possible. The power of these Games is not in showing how a sporting event can be run in a carbon-neutral way, but as a showcase of what a better life could look like for us all. If we’re going to keep the climate crisis at the forefront of people’s minds, and continue to instil hope, we will need both sport and brands to create stories that make people believe.


Matt joined Dark Horses in 2019 to lead the agency's strategic output having previously been Strategy Director at both AnalogFolk and WCRS. He has a long track-record of working in sport and creativity, and is passionate about how sport influences the biggest issues in our society.