In a few months time – at least at the time of writing – two major international competitions are set to begin: EURO 2020 and the Tokyo Olympics.
These quadrennial tournaments—which both last took place in 2016 and were delayed due to the pandemic—will make for, one would hope, an entertaining summer of sport. It is something that frankly, as a sports fan, I am very much looking forward to. But as the world becomes more attuned to the dangers of excessive travelling and the harm it does to the planet, the exciting summer is a lot less exciting, and significantly more worrying, than it might have been.
The consequences of international tournaments on the environment can’t be ignored. Take the UEFA Champions League, for example. 181 fixtures take place throughout the course of a (non-pandemic) Champions League season. 79 teams from 54 different countries qualify for the tournament and, assuming one team is always the away team in these games, that means 181 flights across Europe, often by chartered flights, over the course of the 9 month campaign.
It goes without saying that this has a significant impact on our planet, with the Jocelyn Timperley’s 2020 article saying that ‘flying is, mile for mile, the most damaging way to travel for the climate’. If 181 short-haul flights (the Champions League only includes teams in Europe) doesn’t seem like much to you, consider the fact that this is one tournament, in one sport, in one of the world’s continents, and this is only in the men’s game.
Now consider how many competitions there are. In football alone, there are literally thousands of domestic and international tournaments which are taking place throughout the football year, in both the men’s and women’s game. The same can be said for rugby. At the time of writing the Six Nations tournament is underway, with Italy and France’s participation in the tournament making it a competition that will require some flights and international travel.
The problem was not something I concerned myself with until I read more about the proposals for the 2020 Euros tournament. The event takes place every four years, but normally in just one country (the last instalment took place in 2016 in France, for example). The 2020 tournament was scheduled to take place across 12 nations, from Spain and the UK out in the West to far-flung Russia and Azerbaijan out to the East. With the potential for teams to be flying regularly across the continent, thankfully the organisers UEFA have made some decisions to make it less problematic for the environment.
Teams will have a base camp where they will stay between matches – Wales, for example, will set up in Azerbaijan as their first fixtures are scheduled to be there, as well as assigning stadia to the groups for the competition – teams in Group D will play in Glasgow and London.
But this doesn’t go far enough. Unfortunately, I disagree with the idea of stretching a tournament across a continent. It is significantly better for the environment and, I imagine, for the players, if a tournament is in one country. The benefit of the Olympics being in one country means that, whilst all of the athletes will fly out to that country, they will at least be there for a period of time and are unlikely to need to make any journeys whilst in the country.
This model works: the UEFA Champions League and Europa League tournaments were finished during the summer through more condensed versions in Portugal and Germany respectively. Why this can’t be brought in as a useful way of completing these tournaments in future is beyond me; it makes sense for players’ fitness, and ultimately for the environment if teams spend less time in the sky.
Another method is to remove some of the more pointless fixtures—perhaps that word is subjective, but for example I disagree with international breaks during the season. Maybe this is not strictly because of the impact on the climate, but removing them—or at least changing how they are done—would be hugely beneficial for the environment. Perhaps having friendly tournaments, rather than sporadic friendly fixtures with teams playing against other random teams from across the world, would not only bring about more competition and potentially excitement within these fixtures, but also mean that you could group various nations together and avoid having lots of flights dotted throughout the season.
There is so much value in international tournaments, no doubt about it, and we would be liars if those who are interested in sport don’t feel some sort of patriotism seeing a team or someone from their nation playing in a competition. But, as the world is becoming more and more concerned (rightly) about our damage to the environment, we must also consider how the games we love and take an interest in can be made more sustainable.