Analytical report on the sustainability of the London 2012 Olympic games

Last Updated: 24 Jul 2020
Essay type: Analytical
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Executive summary

This report presents a discussion of the sustainability plan developed for, and implemented during, the 2012 Olympic Games held in London. The sustainability plan was governed by five main themes: climate change; waste; biodiversity; inclusion; and healthy living (London 2012, 2012). The aim with regards to climate change was to deliver a low carbon Games in order to be able to showcase the ability of London 2012 to respond to the need to minimise our impact on the environment. The aim with regards to waste was to deliver a zero-waste Games. The aim for biodiversity was to conserve biodiversity and to create new green spaces across London, which would enable people to be brought closer together through both sport and Nature. With regards to inclusion, the aim of London 2012 was to be the most inclusive Olympic Games to date, with the Games being used as an opportunity to develop the region of London in which the Games was held. With regards to healthy living, the aim of the Games was to inspire people in the UK to become more motivated to exercise and to take up sport, through this developing more active and healthy lifestyles (Girginov and Hills, 2008). In order to provide a framework for the achievement of these five themes, the sustainability plan was divided in to five main aspects, each of which will be discussed in detail in the next section of the report: Local community work; Our responsibility; Food vision; Active travel; and Recycling.

Overview of the sustainability plan put forward by the organisers of the London 2012 Olympics

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As London 2012 (London 2012, 2012) state, “When we bid to host the 2012 Games, we made a radical proposal to the International Organising Committee…we were going to hold the world’s first truly sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games”. The Olympic 2012 organising committee sat down with BioRegional and the WWF to develop a plan called Towards a One Planet 2012 which outlined how the Olympic Games 2012 could be made as sustainable as possible, guided by the idea that the “…world should live within it’s means” (London 2012, 2012). The sustainability plan that was developed has five main areas of consideration entitled climate change; waste; biodiversity; inclusion; and healthy living. These were implemented via five main approaches: local community work (inclusion and biodiversity); our responsibility (inclusion); food vision (climate change and waste); active travel (healthy living); and recycling (waste). These five areas were developed through consultation across four main areas, all of which related directly to those attending the Games or watching the Games on the television, namely the venues, travel, food and waste (London 2012, 2012).

As London 2012 (2012) state, “All our venues were designed to ensure that all the athletes perform to the best of their ability whilst pushing the boundaries of sustainability knowledge and design”, with all the venues being designed – or remodelled – on the basis of the venues leaving a sustainable legacy for future generations. With regards to travel, London 2012 (2012) note that the most important consideration was to enable the millions of spectators – and the thousands of participants – to be able to reach the venues on time and for the Games to be used as an opportunity to educate the population about sustainable travel, including the benefits of using public transport, walking and cycling. With regards to food, the organisers of the Games worked very closely with the food industry in order to be able to bring ethical and sustainable food to the Games. Waste was another major consideration of the organising committee, with the organising committee aiming to send none of the extra waste generated during the Games to landfill (London 2012, 2012).

The five areas will now be discussed in detail. ‘Local community work’, as London 2012 (2012) detail, was based around a specially created outreach program called Changing Places, with the specific aims of encouraging inclusion and preserving and increasing biodiversity (London 2012, 2007). This program aimed to encourage people to get out in to their local community to effect positive changes in their community, changes that would make the communities more attractive to residents and to visitors. The main aims of the ‘Local community work’ area of the London 2012 sustainability plan were to inspire communities to improve their public spaces; to enable people from communities to become more united and to develop new skills and interests; and to improve the quality of the neighbourhoods around London 2012 venues, with a view to not only improving the visitor experience but providing an opportunity for long-term positive changes in the aesthetics of these communities.

The program was begun in 2009 and, since that date, as London 2012 (2012) note, there have been more than 6000 volunteers who have signed up to help, with over 15,000 hours of volunteer time having been given to the program. More than 15 tonnes of waste have been removed from communities near the Olympic venues and over 7000m of community gardens have been created across 250 sites, with 2000 square metres of graffiti having been removed from walls in these communities. As London 2012 (2012) discuss, this represents a massive commitment from local communities who have felt the impact on the environment of their local communities, making these local communities more attractive and increasing the sense of pride that local residents take in their communities.

With regards to the ‘Our responsibility’ area of the sustainability plan, London 2012 (2012) notes that “Sustainability has been a part of every bold and challenging decision we have made in the development of the Olympic Park and the staging of the Games”. This area fits within the main ‘Inclusion’ theme of the London 2012 sustainability plan. The Games were not only a success but the preparation for the Games has meant that London has, “…changed”, with the sustainability plan, “….changing the way we impact people, industry and the planet” (London 2012, 2012). As London 2012 (2012) note, within the framework of ‘Our responsibility’, there are six main achievements that have arisen from the Games: The Olympic Park; Carbon management; Sustainable transport; Food vision; Waste; and Standards.

The Olympic Park features the most sustainable sports venue ever built, with 60% of construction materials for the Park having been brought to the site by rail or river, thus minimising the pollution that the transport of these materials caused. As Collins et al. (2009) note, however, it can be difficult to accurately measure the impact of mega sporting events on the local area, both in the short- and long-term. It is difficult, therefore, to know how London 2012 managed to assess, in quantitative terms, the reduction in pollution generated as a result of moving materials in this way and whether this reduction was maintained during the actual hosting of the Games. In terms of carbon management, London 2012 was the first Olympic Games to measure it’s carbon footprint across the whole Games, with the analysis of this footprint enabling decisions to be made about how to avoid, reduce and substitute carbon emissions in London in future (London 2012, 2012). Sustainable transport was a major concern of the organising committee, with the committee committing to achieving 100% sustainable transport across the duration of the Games. This was achieved through the ‘Supporting Active Travel’ plan, which will be discussed later in the report.

Regarding ‘Food vision’, which fits within the ‘Healthy living’, ‘Waste’ and ‘Biodiversity’ themes of the sustainability plan, London 2012 represented the “…largest peacetime catering operation in the world” with the delivery of food using ethical and sustainable principles meaning that the Games delivered 14 million sustainably sourced meals to visitors and participants. ‘Waste’ was treated as a fundamental issue that needed to be tackled if the Games were to be delivered sustainably, with the overall aim of London 2012 to achieve ‘zero-waste-to-landfill’ and the Games actually achieving an overall 98.5% reuse and 99% recycling of all materials from the Games (London 2012, 2012). In terms of ‘Standards’, London 2012 were the first Olympic organising committee to be certified to the British Standard 8901: Specification for a Sustainability Management Systems for Events (London 2012, 2012).

Under the area of ‘Food vision’, the London 2012 organising committee made certain commitments, including a commitment to deliver choice, diversity and affordable prices to visitors in terms of the food that would be available for them to buy at the Games (London 2012, 2012). It was also noted that the food that was sold was healthy, this being a key consideration of the organising committee in view of their commitment to the Games being used as a showcase to encourage people in the UK to become more active and, through this, healthier. To achieve these broad aims, five aspects of food vision were considered: food safety and hygiene; choice and balance; food sourcing and supply chains (with local food being given precedence); environmental management, resource efficiency and waste (with food providers being encouraged to use recyclable packaging); and skills and education (London 2012, 2012). One major aspect of the food vision was the decision to use only fish caught or farmed sustainably, this inspiring the naming of London as the Sustainable Fish City in 2011 (London 2012, 2012).

With regards to active travel area of the sustainability plan, which fits in the ‘Healthy living’ theme of the sustainability plan (London 2012, 2007), this will be discussed in more detail in the next section of the report. The ‘recycling’ area of the sustainability plan was an important aspect of the plan, constituting the main concern of the ‘Waste’ theme of the plan (London 2012, 2007), the organising committee encouraging the food providers at the Games to use compostable packaging and for all visitors to recycle wherever possible. In terms of the non-recyclable rubbish generated during the Games, the organising committee placed designated black bins around the venues, the material going in to these bins was then used to produce electricity, which was then pumped back in to the Games. Overall, then, the five areas of the sustainability plan were well thought out and delineated in such a way that each area supported each other area, providing an overall plan for sustainability that was not only comprehensive but also, and importantly, highly practical (Girginov et al., 2009; Davies, 2012). It can be argued that it was the practical nature of the sustainability plan that led to its aims being achieved across all five areas of the plan (Nichols, 2012; Horne, 2012).

Detailed review of ‘active travel’

As London 2012 (2012) discusses, one of the main aims of the sustainability plan was to encourage UK society, in general, to become more active, to undertake more exercise and, through this, to become healthier as a whole. As Devine (2012) discusses, the Government, as part of the planning for the Olympic Games, organised this aim in to four areas of focus, aiming, through this, to, “…harness the UK’s passion for sport to increase grass-roots participation, particularly by young people and encourage the whole population to be more physically active”. With this in mind, the sustainability plan included, as one of the five main areas, the idea of ‘Active travel’, which aimed to encourage visitors to the Games to walk and cycle more often and, as a result of this, and education surrounding this idea, to encourage people in the UK to walk and cycle more often. The Active travel program was developed to encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles, with this not only offering a way to improve the overall health of the population – and therefore having a public health perspective – but also easing the burden on public transport and on the road network during the London 2012 event (London 2012, 2012).

As part of this framework, the London 2012 Inspire Programme was set up which aimed to encourage more walking and cycling. In the run up to the Games, 60 Inspire programmes were set up, with the lessons learned from these pilot projects being consolidated and turned in to plans to effect real changes in the choice of transportation across the UK as a whole (Horne, 2012). As London 2012 (2012) noted, “By creating a positive experience for people walking and cycling to the Games, London 2012 and Transport for London hope people will continue to choose to walk and cycle in the future, both for every day trips and to future sporting and cultural events”.

It is clear, then, that the London 2012 organising committee has a serious commitment to using the lessons learned during London 2012 to improve the health of the general populace beyond the 2012 Games. As London 2012 (2007; 47) states, “Living healthy lifestyles within the resources of the planet, is an essential element of working towards a one planet 2012”, with healthy living being tightly linked to other aspects of the sustainability plan, including access to green spaces, healthy food and active travel. If more green spaces are available, for example, as a result of the quest for community involvement and the commitment to restore and create more biodiversity spots across London, then people will be more inclined to get outside and be healthy. Once people start to feel healthier, their bodies ask for healthier food.

As Shipway (2007) notes, it can be difficult, however, to determine what the sustainable legacies of an event such as London 2012 might be, in terms of health. Whilst the Games had a unique opportunity to deliver sustainable sporting and health legacies, there are many key challenges that need to be overcome before these legacies can have any short- or long-term impacts. What is needed, argues Shipway (2007), is a “…positive step change in the attitudes towards sport and physical activity in British society”. Until this is achieved, it is difficult to see how the ‘active travel’ legacy of the London 2012 sustainability plan can be achieved. As Dickson and Benson (2011) note, what is needed, in reality, is some form of metric that could enable the measurement of the degree of implementation of these desired legacies and the impact of the desired legacies on the local area and beyond. Without this, as Dickson and Benson (2011) note, the sustainability plan put forwards by London 2012 is simply talk with no substance (Leopky and Parent, 2012). Closer links to local and regional planning activities could, for example, have ensured a greater likelihood of achieving, and sustaining, the aims of ‘active travel’ (Gratton and Preuss, 2008).

A short opinion survey of ‘active travel’

A short survey was undertaken of GSM London students, in order to find out their opinions on the active travel ideas in the London 2012 sustainability plan. As shown in Table 1, of the twenty students interviewed, none of them had realised that the London 2012 Games had been accompanied by a sustainability plan.

Number of students who knew the London 2012 Olympics had a sustainability planNumber of students who did not know that the London 2012 Olympics had a sustainability plan

Table 1: Showing the number of students who were aware of the London 2012 sustainability plan

When the respondents were asked if they could imagine what this plan might have included, eighteen of the students said they were not sure, with one mentioning that they thought the plan might include ‘minimising impacts on climate change’ and another mentioning ‘encouraging less waste’.

Of the twenty students that were interviewed, all twenty of them had been in London at the time of the Games but only three of them had visited an event during the London 2012 Games. Asked for their opinion of the London 2012 Games, twelve of them responded that tickets for the events were too expensive and that the transport had been ‘a nightmare’ around the time of the Games, with the seven students who travel by public transport saying that they had become tired, during the Games, of having to help tourists find their routes and of having to stand because the bus/Tube they usually used was very full during the duration of the Games. Two of the students interviewed said that they had taken to using a bike, during the Games, because of the crowding on public transport, and that, as they had enjoyed the experience so much, and felt so much healthier when they used their bike to get to their place of study, they had continued to use their bike since the Games. When asked if they would recommend using a bike to their peers, both of these students stated that, yes, they had recommended using a bike to friends and that, between them, six other students had now started cycling to their place of study, rather than using public transport.

When asked whether they felt the London 2012 planning committee had been successful in their mission to encourage the use of active transport to move around the Games, the twenty students replied that they had not realised this was an aspect of the sustainability plan of the London 2012 Games. When told that it was, and that the main aim of this was to encourage people in the UK, in general, to be healthier, the twenty students seemed perplexed by this idea, stating that they were unsure if this would work, as they had not even heard of the sustainability plan and certainly had not seen any adverts encouraging people to use active transport during the Games.

It was clear from the short opinion survey undertaken that the twenty students interviewed were not very well informed of the sustainability plan of London 2012 nor of the specific parts of this plan, nor of the fact that Londoners, and people in the UK in general, were being asked to use active transport, following the model of this piloted during the London 2012 Games. It seems, therefore, that from this small sample of people, the London 2012 organising committee were not very successful in transmitting their grand ideas to the general populace.


This report has provided an analysis of the sustainability plan of the London 2012 Games, looking at the main themes in the plan and how these themes were implemented. The results of a short survey were presented which suggest that, despite the fact that London 2012 were very successful in implementing some of their plans (such as those covering waste and food), they were not so successful in educating the public about the benefits of engaging in active transport.


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Analytical report on the sustainability of the London 2012 Olympic games. (2018, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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