Sustainability Corner with Romein VAN STADEN, Ebenezer ASUMANG & Lilian Aura: Sport – Does it count for sustainability?


“Sport has the power to change the world—Nelson Mandela, Former South African President

We might not think sustainability and sport have much in common but Nelson Mandela would undoubtedly disagree. As Nelson Mandela famously said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination”.

There can be no doubt that sport has a significant societal impact. Furthermore, it is a tool for achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Sports governing bodies like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), and The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) are using sport to reach these goals. Indeed, sport has the potential to be a powerful agent of change. Sport can create a sense of community and shared identity, help raise awareness about public issues, mobilise support to help address these issues, and change behaviour.  In addition, sport is a powerful tool to work toward sustainability initiatives.

However, the sport sustainability ecosystem is context-dependent; therefore, a platform or framework must be context-specific to have an impact. Hence, we need to examine how engagement is framed in the bigger picture rather than just being seen as a one-off. Branding and communication are pivotal, as we need to make it matter for communities by telling the local stories that resonate. Sport can create change and lasting social impacts in many capacities, such as public engagement, government and corporate support of communities and athletes, and venues built with legacy in mind. In addition, sports can help foster an environment of dynamic human interaction and community cohesion.

Game on
The IOC published its sustainability report (2019), which stipulated sustainability as a core executive function to ensure sustainable Olympic Games. The Tokyo Olympics 2020 were planned and delivered according to sustainable themes like Responsible Consumption and Production, and Climate change (UN SDGs 12 and 13). All materials were made from recycled materials. For example, the athletes’ beds were made of cardboard. In Vancouver in 2010, buildings were warmed up by heat generated from raw sewage.

Across different sectors, there has been a push for sustainability, and sport has not been left behind. CSR by sports has been and is an ongoing matter for sports administrators, managers and researchers, revolving around economic, legal, social and ethical issues sports organisations should constantly address and strategically incorporate into their business activities. Howard Bowen (1953), in his book, ‘The social responsibility of the Businessman’, describes CSR as expressing a fundamental morality in how a company behaves toward society. It follows ethical behaviour toward stakeholders and recognises the spirit of the legal and regulatory environment.

John Elkington (1994) developed the triple bottom line principle, an accounting framework that assesses the performance of organisations across three layers. Firstly, there needs to be a balance among the economic, environmental and ecological interests. Because “talk of social responsibility” in sport originally referred to CSR rather than sustainability, it is essential to review the emergence of CSR in sport. As the notion of CSR became more salient to businesses, sports organisations also started adopting socially responsible behaviours (Sheth and Babiak, 2010Babiak and Trendafilova, 2011Misener et al., 2013). However, sports did not start engaging with CSR significantly until the early 1990s (Kott, 2005Robinson, 2005Babiak and Wolfe, 2013). Professional leagues (e.g., soccer, American football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey) were the first sports organisations to embrace the concept of CSR, and they rapidly began implementing CSR initiatives (Babiak and Wolfe, 2013). Over the last 30 years, sports organisations’ CSR initiatives have expanded to include philanthropy, community involvement, youth education, and youth health (Babiak and Wolfe, 2009Walker and Kent, 2009Paramio-Salcines et al., 2013).

Given the recent massive growth in the size of sporting events and the ambitions of rights holders, it has become vital to consider these events’ environmental and social impacts (Turner et al., 2011). This realisation led to ISO 26000 in 2010 to provide businesses and other organisations with guidance on operating socially responsibly. Two years on, in conjunction with the London 2012 Olympic Games, the International Standards Organisation published a separate set of standards (ISO 20121) for sustainable event management that, for example, provides guidelines on mapping the economic, environmental and social impacts of sports events (García-Muñoz, 2013).

Social responsibility and international sport federations

International Federations (IFs) are also obligated to act socially responsibly. Sports event organisers are under increasing pressure to consider their overall impacts on society and implement CSR initiatives (Paramio-Salcines et al., 2013). Most International Federations of Olympic sports were created in the late 19th century or early 20th century to produce standardised rules for their respective sports (Clausen, 2018). At this time, they were entirely amateur organisations (Inglis, 1997) that depended on volunteers and did not seek financial income (Cornforth, 2001Clausen, 2018). They have since become world governing bodies for their sports. They are responsible for delivering top-class sports events, maintaining the integrity of their sport, and overseeing their affiliated continental and national federations while meeting the needs of internal and external stakeholders, such as host cities, sponsors, and broadcasters (Jonker and De Witte, 2006García-Muñoz, 2013). In commercial terms, they occupy an intermediate position between professional sports leagues and amateur national sports federations, most of which receive a large proportion of their annual budgets from the government. In contrast to professional sports leagues, IFs are non-profit organisations that pursue income to ensure financial independence.

This innovative environment has influenced the identity of IFs, which have become increasingly professional and commercial since the end of the 20th century. More specifically, the Olympic IFs started to realise the commercial value of their significant events, broadcasting and branding/naming rights over which they have begun asserting ownership (Clausen and Bayle, 2017). According to Zeimers et al. (2021), this new operating environment has caused IFs to become hybrid organisations whose sporting role is increasingly accompanied by commercial objectives, which they try to counterbalance by undertaking social initiatives. Nagel et al. (2015) identified four reasons why IFs have become more business-like and have begun facing questions about their CSR. Firstly, the growth of top-level international sports; secondly, financial instability (business concerns); thirdly, the need to satisfy a more excellent range of stakeholders (e.g., numerous commercial partners); and lastly, the imperative to adopt current forms of communication. The resulting increase in commercialisation has led to a related increase in calls for IFs to demonstrate their social responsibility.

The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) has introduced a guidebook for stakeholders and members on increasing sustainability when delivering events. The guidelines include energy efficiency, waste management, and social responsibility (FIA Guideline for Sustainable events, 2020). Companies are also leveraging their sports sponsorship with CSR. Linking support with CSR positively influences the customer perception of the brand. For example, SKY Sports in Britain published a case study, “Game zero,” where Tottenham played against Chelsea in a Premier League match and achieved zero net carbon emissions. In addition, Nike has paired up with Football for Future, an environmental football non-profit, to create a climate change handbook to educate athletes on climate change and its relationship with football. Furthermore, Lacoste and Sports Impact have developed a programme, ‘Play, Learn and Thrive Collective’, which uses sport as a tool for education, social cohesion, and integration in Morocco and South Africa.

Japan Sports Council, the International Platform for Sport and Development, and the Swiss Academy for Development have published a guide on translating policy into practice and effective programme management titled: ‘Bridging the Divide in Sport and Sustainable Development’. As a result, there is an incredible innovation in programmes for sports for sustainable development. Still, there are no standardised frameworks on best practices – issues such as safeguarding, diversity and inclusion – addressed in the publication.

In Africa, the question of sports and sustainability is now part of the hegemonic discourse. Africa has a depth of talent and needs to continue improving on proper resource and project management so that we can create sustainable development. Although sports can be an economic driver through the creation of employment opportunities and, thus, foster wealth creation, building a world-class stadium and improving the sporting infrastructure to host mega events has an impact on society. For instance, Rwanda built the biggest indoor Arena in East Africa that can host many events. For the AFCON Cup in Mali, the Bamako Airport was expanded and improved, and Kenya renovated the Kasarani Stadium in preparation for the Youth U-18 games in 2020.


It’s a cliché, but it is true – the only thing permanent in life is change. People will evolve, strategies will become outdated, and attitudes will shift. Sustainability requires effort. It requires investment in human capital for us to achieve the set-out goals. Sport is a tool and a proven catalyst for change. Hence, it is possible to create a sustainable future through sports, as sustainability is not a problem to be solved but a bright future to be shaped!

Local, regional and international organisations are setting up programmes demonstrating sport’s power. Sports academies are a new force for driving development; and with that, using athletes as change agents has led to changing the mindset of communities. For instance, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ) funds projects that support peace and other interventions for refugees in Jordan, Iraq, and several African countries through its Sports for Development Plan (S4DA).


ISO 26000:2010 provides organizations with guidance on social responsibility and sustainable development. Available online at: (accessed September 24, 2022).

Mandela, Nelson (2000), Laureus World Sports Awards. “Sport has the power to change the world” – Nelson Mandela.

Refer to the IOC’s website: Available online at:

Sports Governing Bodies and Human Rights – IHRB.

Frontiers | Assessing International Sport Federations’ Sustainability ….

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in Professional Team Sports.

About the Writers:

Romein   is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. Romein is a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors. Contact him via ([email protected]

Ebenezer has expertise in |Development Coomunication| Innnovative Finance & Investment|Media & Sustainability|Ghostwriting|| Contact him via ([email protected])

Lilian  is a Sports Consultant with experience in sport, education and pedagogy. Contact her via([email protected])

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