Sport and the Environment

Everything outside the boundaries of the subsystem sport is considered to be its environment, and this can be influenced and altered by sport or, conversely, can itself influence sport. Examples of the latter are to be observed, for instance, in the effects on athletic performance of certain climatic qualities of the environment of Mexico City (tropical uplands) during the Olympic Summer Games 1968, or of Lagos (humid tropical lowlands) during the Pan African Games in 1973. In the sociology of sport it is principally the first mentioned influence – sport on the environment – that is the subject of discussion and study, and in particular the integration of sport in ecosystem structures is at the center of consideration.

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the guiding principle of sustainability has been internationally recognized. This principle says that nature must be protected from over exploitation so that it will be available to future generations in sufficient quality and quantity. And it is also a guideline for sport (e.g., when choosing the location for sports grounds). Here it is important to exploit areas which can stand ecological strain, and to spare sensitive areas (Schemel & Erbguth 2000: 13–22). This principle not only applies to the construction of buildings and development of sports grounds, but also to the practice of outdoor sports. Originally looked upon as harmless leisure activities, they are now being subjected to harsh criticism. For even though sport is a secondary problem compared with the main causes of environmental destruction (agriculture, industry, settlements, and traffic), it is nevertheless imperative to reconsider various aspects of the subject ‘‘sport versus environment.’’

Noxious emissions and pollution caused by sports tourism and by athletes and spectators traveling to and from events must be mentioned in this context. There is also the construction of stadia, hotels, roads, etc., all too often in other wise unspoiled countryside, and sometimes exclusively for one single big event, such as the Olympic Games. A further matter for discussion is the huge consumption of energy at big athletic events, and all the effects of various individual sports, such as alpine skiing, on the environment. Every year 120 million tourists and athletes go to the European Alps. This figure makes it clear that the compatibility of sports and leisure activities in the Alps with nature and the environment must be subjected to scrutiny in the light of the principle of sustainability. Building ski lifts not only means the loss of trees and the natural appearance of the local landscape, but, above all, also results in damage to vegetation cover due to the use of crawler type vehicles, which also brings up the question of erosion. Then there is the damage caused by each individual: the noxious emissions produced during travel to and from the mountains, garbage, ski wax and waste water left on site, vegetation damaged by skiing off piste or when there is too little snow to protect it (Weiss et al. 1998). This is discussed more often since 1990 due to recent climatic changes. On the other hand, all the alpine ski pistes and slopes together only represent a total of 0.9 percent of the entire area of the Alps (Baetzing 1997: 215), so that damage to mountain regions is in effect very slight.

The effects of sport on the environment need not necessarily be negative. Opinions can be subjective and often differ greatly. Laying out a golf course, for instance, will probably be regarded by conservationists as a negative alteration to the natural environment. Golfers, on the other hand, will look upon it as conservation of the countryside. This is mainly due to differences in the appreciation of nature. For those who understand ‘‘natural’’ to mean ‘‘unspoiled’’ or ‘‘untouched,’’ sport appears to be a threat to the environment, for it brings mountain bikers, joggers, hikers, riders, skiers, and other sportspeople into regions hitherto unused by human beings. However, if humans are seen as a legitimate part of a common habitat together with flora and fauna, then specially bred plants, flowerbeds, paths, or skiing pistes are all part of nature. From this point of view, sport has a positive effect on the environment, in that it gets human beings out of their overheated living rooms and air conditioned cars and (following Rousseau) back to Nature.


  1. Baetzing, W. (1997) Kleines Alpen Lexikon. Umwelt- Wirtschft-Kultur, Munich.
  2. Schemel, H.-J. & Erbguth, W. (2000) Handbuch Sport und Umwelt. Ziele, Analysen, Bewertungen, Loesungsansaetze, Rechtsfragen, Aachen.
  3. Weiss, O., Norden, G., Hilscher, P., & Vanreusel, B. (1998) Ski Tourism and Environmental Problems: Ecological Awareness among Different Groups. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 33(4): 367-80.

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