Let the Games Be Green: Fusing Sustainability and Sport
By the time she arrived at F&ES, Jill Savery M.E.M. '06 had already won an Olympic gold medal. Today she is working at the nexus of sustainability and sports, helping sports organizations embed sustainable practices into their event planning.
By KEVIN DENNEHY
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
In 1996, when Jill Savery M.E.M. ’06 was winning a gold medal in synchronized swimming at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the notion that such global events should aim to reduce their environmental impacts was a new concept.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had just recently adopted the Environment as the third “pillar” of Olympism (the others are Sport and Culture), and added environmental factors as a major criterion in selecting host cities. And for the first time, the Olympic Charter explicitly required that future Games be held in ways that “promote sustainable development in sport.”
By 2000, for the Olympic Games in Sydney, planning for the Olympic Village and other major venues included green design, solar energy and water conservation strategies, one of the first large-scale initiatives by a host city to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency. In the years that followed, the organizers of other major sporting events began implementing sustainability targets for their events.
Savery, having studied the environment as a college undergraduate, saw an opportunity. In 2004, she enrolled at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where she tailored her coursework around the nexus of sport and sustainability.
“It was a combination of two of my passions — sports and the environment,” she says. “I was at the front line of this all happening. I got lucky that I was one of the first people to study this emerging field.”
In the years since, she has helped several organizations — including the London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and the America’s Cup Event Authority — to embed sustainable practices into their event planning.
Savery led the London 2012 work program of the UK-based BioRegional Development Group in the lead up to to the London Summer Olympics, which are now considered the gold standard in sustainability achievement for a major sporting event. Her role was to support the organizers in achieving their sustainability targets, which had been co-developed by BioRegional and WWF-UK.
“BioRegional, along with several other stakeholders, supported the London 2012 team as they bid to host the event,” she said. “That support helped to show the IOC that we believed in the targets and that they were achievable.”
Among other achievements, London 2012 set the standard for tracking its carbon emissions and implemented robust plans to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. Savery’s work included a pilot reuse project for construction materials during the building of the Olympic Park, and a program to engage with athletes themselves on the importance of sustainability.
More recently, Savery was the Head of Sustainability for the 2013 America’s Cup regatta in San Francisco.
In that role, she developed and implemented a sustainability plan aimed at achieving a carbon neutral, zero waste and sustainable event. She worked with the sailing teams, sponsors, staff, vendors and construction crews to minimize potentially negative impacts in the city and on the waters of San Francisco Bay.
“These were brand-new concepts for a majority of the people involved in the project,” she said. “How do you get people to slow down for a moment, understand these new concepts and integrate them into what they’re doing?
“It’s a big challenge, especially because you’re under a time crunch, a budget crunch, and you’re trying to deliver a high-quality product — the sporting event itself.”
The carbon neutral targets were achieved through a carbon management strategy that included measuring greenhouse gas emissions, reducing emissions as far as possible, and then compensating for unavoidable emissions through carbon credits. Reduction measures included using renewable energy and biofuels, using electric golf carts at the venue, and encouraging spectators to walk, bike or take public transit to the event. “The bike valet was a huge hit among spectators!” Savery said.
Organizers also chose not to use single-use plastic drinking bottles. “It had never been done before for an event of this scale,” Savery says. “Plastic pollution in the marine environment is a major problem, and it’s creating gyres of plastic in our oceans. We educated spectators about plastic pollution and walked the talk by not using single-use plastic at the event venues.”
She helped the organizers achieve a model event in terms of sustainability. It was certified as a Platinum Level Clean Regatta by the conservation group Sailors for the Sea, making it the first event to receive their highest rating.
The fact that Savery made the connection between sustainability and sports her specialty is no real surprise. It’s why she came to F&ES in the first place.
As an Olympian, she knew all too well how much waste occurs during sporting events, and that opportunities for improvements existed in many areas — including energy use, transportation and public engagement.
“I tailored every class I could around these issues, focusing on major sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup,” she says.
For her thesis project, she worked with F&ES Professor Stephen Kellert to explore the value of large-scale sporting events as a platform to educate spectators about sustainability decisions.
“At the time, sports and sustainability was stony ground,” Kellert remembers. “She was definitely pioneering in this field. There was some precedent to build upon, but not much in the U.S.
“But she had credibility as an Olympic gold medal-winner. It wasn’t like she was someone with a great idea but no entrée into the system. She knew how the Olympics were organized and what occurred and had some networks already.”
Savery, who recently launched her own sustainability consulting company, Bristlecone Strategies, Inc., says she’s seen increased awareness not just among organizers, but among athletes and sponsors. And if you can reach them, it offers an immense platform to reach massive audiences.
“An event like the Olympic Games reaches two-thirds of the planet,” she said. “What can we do to do to engage with these people? What messages can we use? What are we going to say to all those stakeholders?
“The event community is getting better at this engagement, but we have a long way to go.”