The event, which is open to the public, will take place at the Princeton Club of NYC at 6:30 PM on Monday March 11th. Admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.
Over the past 15 years or so, Green-Sports 1.0 — the greening of the games themselves — has largely been a success. From LEED certified stadia and arenas to Zero-Waste games to locating sports venues close to mass transit, Green-Sports has become mainstream within the sports facilities world, even if it is unknown to most fans.
As we turn the page to Green-Sports 2.0 — engaging fans and other sports stakeholders to take positive environmental actions — we have to acknowledge that to date, the sports world has largely been slow to directly address climate change. There are understandable reasons why this has been the case, chief among them the fear of getting tangled up in the politics of the issue.
Yet, given the increasing severity and immediacy of climate change, it says here that avoidance is no longer an option if the sports world is as serious about walking the green walk as it is good at talking the green talk.
Of course, answering the question of how sports should engage on climate change is the tricky part.
That will be the centerpiece of “Green-Sports and Its Impact on Climate Change,” a discussion I will moderate with a top-shelf panel at the Princeton Club of New York City (15 West 43rd Street) Monday evening March 11 at 6:30 PM. The panel will consist of:
Jenny Vrentas is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated(SI) and The MMQB, SI’s pro football website. She covers both on-field and off-field NFL-related stories. On the latter, Vrentas often deals with social and political issues, although she hasn’t tackled climate change yet. Before SI, she spent six years at The Star-Ledger (Newark), as beat reporter for the New York Giants (2012) and the New York Jets (2010-11). The 2018 season was her 12th covering the NFL.
Jenny Vrentas (Photo credit: Twitter)
Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by clicking here. If you are in the New York City area the evening of Monday March 11th, please join us. And if you know anyone who might be interested in attending, please share this post with her/him.
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Ann Duffy has been working at the intersection of mega-sports events and sustainability for more than a decade. She was hired as Chief Sustainability Officer for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Since then, Ann has been involved in some way, shape or form with the sustainability efforts for several of the Olympic/Paralympic bids, as well as with the successful United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup. No one is better positioned to talk about sustainability and mega sports events than Ann Duffy so GreenSportsBlog is honored to offer this two part interview.
In yesterday’s Part I, Ann shared how mega-sports events are in her blood, how she came to lead the sustainability efforts at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games and what she and team were able to accomplish there.
Today, in Part II, we examine Ann’s post-Vancouver 2010 work with a variety of Olympic and FIFA World Cup bid and organizing committees. We also discuss what future bid and organizing committees can do to engage fans on climate change and other environmental issues.
GSB: Kudos to you and the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee (VANOC) team for advancing mega-event sustainability. What did you do for a follow up act once the Olympic Flame was doused?
Ann: Thanks! Like I said before, this was the best job I ever had. It was also incredibly intense. Once the Games were over I decided I didn’t want to work in such a cauldron. So in 2010, as my work with VANOC wound down, I started quietly to build The Ann Duffy Group as a sustainability-focused consultancy to mega-event bid and host committees, with an emphasis on the broader, ESG definition of sustainability. The organizing committee for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics reached out in June, 2010 and asked “Can you help us more fully reflect environmental, social and governance goals of the IOC?
GSB: I’m sure you could and did help them. My question is did the Russian authorities allow the sustainability plans to actually be implemented. Aside from the insanity, in my view, of awarding a Winter Olympics to a Mediterreanean-like city on the Black Sea, it sure looked like the Russian government engaged in a serious greenwash. Was that the case?
Ann: Well, I worked with the Sochi committee for one year until the fall of 2011. My experience with my Russian colleagues was incredible; they were totally committed. We put together a sustainability management system including an environmental protection program, a process for sustainable procurement, and a new sustainability reporting structure.
Ann Duffy (2nd from right) and her colleagues at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Organizing Committee (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
GSB: They didn’t have one in place?
Ann: No. Sadly, the program didn’t get fully implemented and the sustainability team was terminated 18 months before the Games. It’s just different in Russia, obviously. I mean, there was no warning in the run up as to how they would turn on the LGBTQ communities the way they did.
GSB: That was awful…and not surprising.
Ann: Thankfully, Canada showed how it’s done by having a Pride House at Canada House in Sochi. And the Deputy Mayor of Vancouver at the time went to Thomas Bach, head of the IOC, and pressed him to ensure that the IOC would expand the Olympic Charter to address LGBTQ issues and they did. On sustainability, I worked on the IOC’s Sustainability and Legacy Commission as part of the development of its Agenda 2020 (a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement).
GSB: Good job, Ann; good job, Canada! And despite the problems with Sochi that were way beyond your control, congratulations on getting The Ann Duffy Group up and running quickly.
Ann: I was very blessed and very busy. From 2013 to 2015, I worked with the local organizing committees of three, count ’em three mega-events, all of which were happening in Canada in 2015.
Ann: The Canada Winter Games were held in Prince George, BC in February of that year. Then the FIFA Women’s World Cup were held across Canada^ in June-July. And then Toronto hosted the Pan Am Games in late July.
England (white) battles Mexico during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (Photo credit: Zou Zheng/Xinhua)
GSB: That’s a mega-event trifecta right there! Did you get any sleep?
Ann: Not much. Especially when you factor in that, in 2013, I also was working on the sustainability aspects of Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, which ultimately went to Tokyo.
GSB: Talk about what you did for the 2015 Canada mega-event trifecta…
Ann: We built on the sustainability efforts of Vancouver 2010 with all three mega-events. The Canada Winter Games are by far the smallest, featuring younger, pre-Olympic athletes. We raised the green bar for all Canada Games going forward by improving sustainability practices, beefing up sustainability-related community engagement and issuing a sustainability report. The FIFA Women’s World Cup was a much bigger yet different animal…
GSB: How so?
Ann: Well, first of all, FIFA put greater emphasis on the Men’s World Cup. But that just meant we had to push extra hard and we did. We worked to leave a sport legacy with integrated environmental management processes and sport development opportunities for women and girls in each of the six host cities and national soccer association. The Pan Am Games were more focused on economic and social sustainability than the environment…
GSB: Why do you think that was the case?
Ann: It comes down to the opportunities and preferences of leadership, plain and simple.
GSB: I guess. But if mega-sports events are really going to lead on sustainability, what can be done to ensure environment and climate are never relegated to the sidelines again?
Ann: I think the prevalence of visible best practices in Europe and other host cities and stadia that demonstrate responsibility for climate impacts, waste impacts, water and biodiversity will help. Environmental stewardship and respect for human rights are now bid requirements for FIFA and Olympic bids. North American professional sports leagues like the NHL, NFL, MLS and MLB are demonstrating leadership. Stadium owners that have built or renovated stadia to green building standards like LEED are also leading on green operations and supporting community initiatives.
GSB: Speaking of leadership, what kind of sustainability projects do you like to lead more: Bids or organizing committees?
Ann: Good question. I guess I love both, but for different reasons. Creativity and “visioning” are crucial for bid work. Organizing committee work is also satisfying — it involves not only organizing and implementing but also coaching, and that means everyone from volunteers up to the C-suite.
GSB: Talking about bid work, you consulted with one of the most sustainable mega-event bids to date, LA 2028.
Ann: Actually, when I started working with them on sustainability it was the LA 2024 bid. But the IOC awarded Paris, another incredibly sustainable bid, those Games and slid LA to 2028. It was great to work with Brence Culp and the LA sustainability team.
Ann Duffy (l) and Brence Culp, head of sustainability for LA 2028 (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
Ann: LA 2028 is an example of what you can do sustainability-wise, when all the stakeholders get it: The city, county, state and local utilities were “all in”. So were the sponsors.
GSB: It doesn’t hurt when most of the venues for LA 2028 already exist…You recently worked on another bid in which no new venues are needed, the United Bid between Canada, Mexico and the US that won the right to host the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup over Morocco.
Ann: The environment, including climate change, along with community and fan engagement took central roles in both the United Bid and the LA 2028 bid. In addition to no new permanent venues, both have robust and sophisticated climate action plans that include new partnerships and collaboration with city and state utilities, public transit providers, stadia/venue owners. Host cities will showcase urban policies such as bold commitments to clean energy.
GSB: What was your role on the United Bid?
Ann: I was a sustainability-legacy advisor. It was a real sprint as the timeline was short but we were fortunate that FIFA had established a strong sustainability mandate.
GSB: They needed to do that, especially in light of the mega-laundry list of mega-problems with Qatar 2022: Human rights violations, indentured servitude, deaths of perhaps as many as 1,200 construction workers building eight stadiums in a country of only 2.5 million people, stadiums that will have air conditioning even though they’re outdoor venues because of the country’s extreme heat…What did the sustainability mandate, well, mandate for the 2026 bid?
Ann: It went deep, Lew. And the United Bid stepped up. GRI sustainability reporting, a climate action plan, ISO 2012-1 certification for sustainable events. Human rights, labor rights, ethical business conduct standards. Green Sports Alliance Board member Mary Harvey took the lead on human rights. I took the lead on the rest, working with the financial services firm Grant Thornton on ethical business and Arup, the global design and engineering firm, on some of the environmental aspects.
GSB: I’m so glad you and Mary were on the case and that the United Bid won the day. Now I’d like to widen the lens a bit. You’ve been involved in the greening of the Olympics and World Cups from the early days of Vancouver 2010 through LA 2028. My main concern, as it is with the whole of the Green-Sports movement, is that most fans — attendees and the much bigger number who watch on TV or online — have no idea this is going on. None.
Ann: Lew, I’m with you 100 percent! We need to do a much better job of using the platform of the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup to share the great greening stories with fans.
Ann: Funny you mention Rio 2016. I helped on the Rio 2016 with communications during the actual Games.
GSB: I would be surprised if you weren’t involved with Rio!
Ann: I was fortunate to be at the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies. When the powerful climate change vignette came on, I started bawling. Mainstreaming climate change messaging was so…powerful. Incredible, really.
Ann Duffy and her colleagues on the 2016 Rio Olympics Organizing Committee at the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
GSB: So how do we make sure that climate change vignette is not a one off?
Ann: Well, the Olympics…and all sport event hosts, frankly, are desperately trying gain relevance and traction with younger audiences…
GSB: …Millennials, GenZ and the rest…
Ann: And those young people want to have an exciting sport event experience. Young people expect responsible action that includes all of it — climate solutions, environmental solutions, diversity and ethical solutions. Sometimes these features will take the lead in the event experience and most of the time they will support the event experience. Mega-event hosts need to recognize this. Well executed, eco-themed fan engagement programs will go over well. Sponsor brands are already stepping up, as well. I am confident this will happen at Paris 2024, the United 2026 FIFA World Cup and LA 2028.
SB: What about Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, and Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022?
Ann: I’d love to say “yes” to the engagement question with those events but it’s a bit complicated. I haven’t worked with any of those mega-events so what I know about them is from a distance. As far as Tokyo 2020 is concerned, I know that, from a technical innovation perspective, the Summer Games will be at the leading edge of sustainability, from energy efficiency to tree planting and much more. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard, on social aspects of sustainability like LGBTQ issues, they’re not so advanced. And on fan engagement issues, I don’t know what they’re going to do. I do know that Pyeongchang 2018 did not follow the lead of Rio and communicate their greenness to fans.
GSB: True. And based on my conversation with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee sustainability team, it seems, sadly, like they will be more like Pyeongchang than Rio in terms of fan engagement. I don’t have any intel on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and sustainability as yet…
Ann: …One thing I can say about China is that, as a country, it is stepping up on climate action nationally far more aggressively than the USA is. I don’t yet know of any specific action by the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics…
GSB: …Maybe the Beijing Organizing Committee will surprise in a good way. Speaking of 2022, what are your thoughts, sustainability-wise, regarding the aforementioned Qatar FIFA World Cup?
Ann: The problems, human rights-wise and otherwise, have been horrible. And that Qatar was a weird choice in the first place given the size and climate of the country is an understatement. The one heartening thing is that, as we heard at the GSA Summit in June, there are some striking environmental innovations underway with the stadiums and the strong national commitment to renewable energy will be a part of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
GSB: I hear what you’re saying, Ann, but I guess, as the expression goes, I’m from Missouri on Qatar: Show Me! At least it looks like environmental sustainability will play a big role at the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, the United 2026 FIFA World Cup and the LA 2028 Summer Games…What do you think?
Ann: Mega-events like the Olympics and FIFA World Cups generally have seven year planning cycles. The key from an environmental sustainability perspective is to develop an integrated set of environmental actions that tackle climate, water, waste, pollution and biodiversity all together throughout the planning cycle. For both Paris 2024 and LA 2028 I am confident we will see “net positive solutions.”
GSB: What does “net positive solutions” mean?
Ann: That hosts will be adding more environmental assets and benefits to their communities and host region than they consume.
GSB: I love that. Two things: 1. Paris and LA really should engage fans on “Net positive solutions” and 2. I only wish Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Beijing and Qatar went the “Net positive solutions,” mega-event route.
Ann: Well, we know we need bolder leadership on sustainability engagement, in all walks of life, from business to government to mega-events. The progress on engagement at mega-events won’t be linear but, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of mega-events is long but it bends towards sustainability and engagement.
GSB: Amen, Ann, AMEN!
Ann Duffy shares her thoughts on the intersection of sustainability, innovation and mega-sports events (3 mins 4 secs)
IN TUESDAY’S PART I: Ann shared the story of her beginnings as an Olympics-loving girl in Western Canada through her time leading the sustainability efforts at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver.
^ Edmonton, Moncton (New Brunswick); Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg were the host cities for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
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Ann Duffy has mega sports events bidding and organizing work in her DNA. Her dad was an advisor to her hometown of Calgary’s early bids to host the 1968 and 1972 Olympic Winter Games — the Alberta city eventually won the right to host the 1988 Games. Eighteen years later, Ann was hired as Chief Sustainability Officer for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. She’s been involved in some way, shape or form with the sustainability efforts for several of the Olympic/Paralympic bids since then, as well as with the successful United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup. No one is better positioned to talk about sustainability and mega sports events than Ann Duffy so GreenSportsBlog is honored to offer this two-part interview.
In today’s Part 1, Ann shares how mega-sports events are in her blood and how she came to lead the groundbreaking sustainability efforts at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.
GreenSportsBlog: I doubt that there’s anyone on the planet who can say they have inherited Olympic bid work as a genetic trait except for you, Ann Duffy.
Ann Duffy: You may be right, Lew. If I’m not the only one, I know I’m a member of a very small club. I was born in Calgary. My dad, who was an alpine ski racer, worked on two Winter Olympics bids in the 1960s involving my hometown: Both were collaborations between Banff, Lake Louise, and Calgary. They did not win. Then, in the early 80s, Calgary was ultimately successful in its bid to host the 1988 Games.
GSB: You had a front row seat to the ’88 bid!
Ann: Not only that; I just loved the Olympics! I OD’d on it on TV. And my family were all recreational athletes: Skiing, tennis, cycling, you name it.
Ann Duffy, speaking at a sport and sustainability symposium in Mexico City in 2014 (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
GSB: So the Olympics and Olympic bids are in your blood. What path did you take to make Olympic bid work, and sustainability in particular, a big part of your career?
Ann: I went to the University of Guelph in Ontario and majored in geography and environmental studies. Then I got a Masters in marketing communications at the University of Calgary with a focus on behavior change. I was there when Calgary hosted the 1988 Olympics, which was very exciting. A lot of us on campus volunteered and took in the Games. I was working at the business school on a study of the economic benefits of hosting mega sports events.
GSB: A hint of things to come…
Opening Ceremonies at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics (Photo credit: Canadian Olympic Committee)
Ann: Next I moved to Switzerland and worked for the World Wide Fund for Nature – International (WWF) for four years in corporate communications and education. I lived in Lausanne…
GSB: …Home of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)
Ann: Indeed! In fact, my jogging route often took me right by the IOC headquarters. I’d think to myself as I looked at the beautiful building, “How cool would it be to work with the IOC in some way.” Eventually, I moved to Vancouver and worked as a communications and environmental management consultant but that Olympics thought remained in my head. And there it stayed as I moved on to lead the sustainability practice with the engineering and project delivery firm CH2M.
GSB: The sustainability-minded firm with the strange name that works on everything from wastewater treatment to urban infrastructure to greenhouse gas management?
Ann: That would be CH2M. People there really cared about sustainability; it wasn’t just box checking. From about 2000 to 2006, I developed CSR strategy for big engineering projects. And CH2M has a sport events practice…
GSB: …Ahhh, that Olympics thing!
Ann: YES! And, from 2000 to 2003, Vancouver was deep into the bid process for the 2010 Winter Olympics. CH2M pitched the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) on infrastructure planning for the bid. And, after Vancouver won the bid, VANOC hired me in 2006 to be the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO)!
Ann: Oh it was! And my dad, Dr. Patrick Duffy, was so proud!!!
GSB: He should’ve been! Ann: He even became a volunteer driver!
Ann Duffy (r), her dad Patrick and her assistant Fiona Kilburn at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
GSB: So what was it like to be CSO of the Vancouver Olympics?
Ann: Lew, it was the best job I’ve ever had — and I’ve had some great jobs — it was thrilling, really. And I was inspired and engaged every day I went to work.
GSB: I can imagine! So what did you work on as CSO?
Ann: Our broad goal was to put on a great, sustainable games. But some of what I worked on was quite nerdy and technical.
GSB: Hey, I’m nerdy and I’m sure many of our readers have technical chops so go for it!
Ann: OK! #1: I developed the sustainability management and reporting system for the Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Games. We took a holistic view to embed sustainability into our approach to daily decision-making that included environment, social, economy and legacy. And we always kept in mind how we would communicate our sustainability efforts with stakeholders, critics, partners and others. #2: We worked very hard to make sure that any venues we built would be relevant to the host communities well after the Games.
GSB: No White Elephants coming out of Vancouver 2010!
Ann: Absolutely not. For example, the Richmond Olympic Oval was transformed from long-track speed skating right after the Games into a community recreational and sport training center. Everything from rugby to volleyball to wheelchair basketball to hockey is played there.
Canada’s Lucas Makowsky celebrates after winning gold in the men’s speed skating team pursuit at the Richmond Speed Skating Oval during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. (Photo credit: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)
The Richmond Oval today, set up for basketball (Photo credit: Richmond Oval)
GSB: I’m sure the people of Richmond are thrilled. Speaking of people, how many did you have on your sustainability team?
Ann: Our core staff ranged from eight to ten. We had socio-economic impact professionals, specialists in environmental management and communications who worked with other units departments including designers, architects, builders, operations folks…the gamut. My job was to collaborate and provide them with the information they needed so they could do their jobs and help us reach our collective sustainability goals.
GSB: What was the #1 sustainability goal?
Ann: To infuse sustainability into everything VANOC did…
GSB: …Which was a state-of-the-art approach back then.
Ann: It was. Sustainability, in its broad Environment-Social-Governance (ESG) definition, became a core facet of everything from volunteer training to procurement to packaging to venue construction and siting…and more. The sustainability, “what do you want your legacy to be?” ethos permeated the entire staff, from the CEO on down.
GSB: Tell us more about legacy…
Ann: One of our most meaningful legacies was with First Nations (indigenous people) in British Columbia and the rest of Canada. We were intent on making sure that our interaction with them would be real and not just about headdresses. So we connected construction companies to members of four First Nations in the Vancouver to Whistler corridor to work on construction projects for the Games. This collaboration eventually led to reversing seasonal unemployment for the Mount Currie Nation and, once the Olympics were over, many First Nations were able to get additional work in the Sea to Sky Corridor from Vancouver to Whistler.
Ann Duffy (l) and Fiona Kilburn next to the Olympic Truce monument for peace during the 2010 Games, designed by First Nations artist Corinne Hunt (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)
GSB: That is what I call a positive legacy! What about from the environmental point of view?
Ann: Sure. We looked to innovate environmentally on climate action, recycling and waste reduction. All new permanent sport venues met LEED building certification from silver to platinum levels. Fortunately IOC corporate partners like Coke, McDonalds’ and VISA had a lot of experience in these arenas. They were able to make sustainability cool. Coke, for example, established 100 percent bottle recyclability solutions on site as well as water efficiency in their bottling processes, not to mention their uniforms made from recycled PET bottles – all firsts at an Olympics. Local Canadian and BC companies undertook similar initiatives. As a result, we were able to establish a protocol for managing sustainability for mega events with the Canadian Standards Association.
GSB: How did climate change fit into Vancouver 2010?
Ann: We were early movers on climate among mega-event committees: We measured and reduced our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from transportation and venue operations to athlete and staff travel and offset the direct emissions we couldn’t further eliminate. And, we publicly reported and communicated our plans, successes and challenges.
IN WEDNESDAY’S PART II: Ann tells the story of her post-Vancouver 2010 sustainability-related work with a myriad of Olympic and FIFA World Cup bids and organizing committees. She also shares her thoughts on what future mega-event bid and organizing committees need to do to ensure fans get engaged on sustainability and climate.
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Neither the USA’s (ugh!) nor Canada’s national soccer teams qualified to play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off tomorrow in Russia. But those two countries, along with 2018 participant Mexico, hit the soccer/football jackpot this morning when they won a vote among 200 FIFA member countries to host the 2026 World Cup, defeating Morocco, 134 votes to 65 (1 voted for neither). Sustainability was one of the metrics upon which both bids were judged and the so-called United Bid was the clear winner on that count.
With that in mind, we are pleased to re-run our interview with Rita Ricobelli, Sustainability Director of the United Bid which first ran on May 4.
GreenSportsBlog: So Rita, how does a woman from Argentina lead the sustainability effort for the United Bid — from Canada, Mexico and the USA — to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup (men’s)?
Rita Ricobelli: Great question, Lew. Growing up in San Francisco, a small town near the city of Cordoba in Argentina, I developed a passion for soccer (or futbol), even though there were no soccer leagues in which girls were allowed to play … Nevertheless, I became a big fan of Boca Juniors, one of the two biggest teams in my country.
RR: We don’t talk about them 🙂 Fast forward to early adulthood. Interested in global development, I got my Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). During that time, I formed an amateur soccer team, which is still part of the New York Women’s Metropolitan Soccer League. Given my passion for sports (I also grew-up playing tennis), my first job after graduate school was at a sports and media platform in New York City, which included the Pan-American Sports Network (PSN).
GSB: What is the Pan-American Sports Network?
RR: It was a Spanish-Portuguese language sports network in Latin America, with significant soccer content, as part of a sports media and marketing platform based in the US. It was a great working experience but the network was sold (a lot of its content was passed over to Fox). Then I pivoted again, workwise.
GSB: What did that pivot entail?
Rita Ricobelli, sustainability director for the United Bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup, at FIFA’s world headquarters in Switzerland (Photo credit: Rita Ricobelli)
RR: I went to work for a New York-based educational NGO, then moved back to Argentina for a year, consulting for the Columbia Business School down there, where I also experienced sports in a fascinating way that was new to me: to engage at-risk youth. I came back to New York in 2006, determined to work on Sustainable Development and the potential application of sports in this quest. In 2007, I joined Columbia’s Earth Institute.
GSB: …Led by economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs…
RR: …At the time, yes. I was hired by the Earth Institute to help manage its international research, education and applied-research initiatives, including the Millennium Villages Project (MVP), a very ambitious endeavor based on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The MVP involved multidisciplinary scientists and collaborators working alongside more than 100 communities, mainly in Africa, on health, agriculture, education, infrastructure, and business development projects. Community engagement, in some cases, was a challenge, and that is when I proposed the use of sports, particularly soccer, as an engaging platform. Many academics were skeptical about linking scientific projects with soccer. But, some understood the opportunity and provided support, including Dr. Sachs, as well as Sree Sreenivasan, a visionary alum, and Dr. Safwan Masri.
GSB: So how did you get from working on the Millennium Villages Project with the Earth Institute to managing sustainability for the United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup?
RR: My first involvement with a World Cup bid was in 2009, advising the U.S. bid team on an innovative proposition to combine soccer with social and environmental science-based projects. Together with Columbia University experts, we developed initiatives to work — through soccer — on STEM education and childhood obesity — through urban planning models — in the U.S. and on youth health and other sustainability areas in developing countries, to be included in the U.S.’ 2022 World Cup Bid Book.
GSB: …”Bid Books” being another way to say proposal for an interested country or countries to be considered as a host of the FIFA World Cup…And the 2022 World Cup, despite a wonderful proposal, was awarded to Qatar. We could get into that decision by FIFA but that would take away from the focus of this story, the sustainability facets of the 2026 United Bid…so we won’t!
RR: Yes. I am fortunate to have this extraordinary opportunity as part of the 2026 United Bid Committee of Canada, Mexico and the United States. The sustainability requirements for our current bid book are a lot more detailed and follow international sustainability standards more tightly prescriptive than in prior World Cup cycles, including new human rights and labor sections, as well as the application of international sustainability standards.
GSB: Talk more about the 2026 bid — how it became a United bid, your involvement on the sustainability side, the bid’s highlights as they compare to your lone competitor, Morocco, and where things stand about six weeks away from the decision.
RR: The 2026 FIFA World Cup will be the largest in the event’s history, expanding from the current 32 to 48 participating countries, and a total of 80 matches. Host countries will need to provide more stadiums and modern infrastructure as well as the ability to support larger populations of local/global fans. That is why Canada, Mexico and the United States came together in April 2017, to combine their resources, experience and capacity, to be UNITED, AS ONE.
It has been an incredible sprint: an exciting and intense proposition, requiring a 24-7 commitment. We only received the final bid requirements in October last year, five months before the Bid submission deadline.
GSB: …Holy cow! That’s only eight months before the bid will be awarded! Now I get your 24-7 comment! Had prior U.S. bids had a sustainability director or is this United Bid a first?
RR: It is a first and that’s largely thanks to John Kristick, executive director for the 2026 United Bid. He was already very supportive of the sustainable development agenda in the previous Bid (as managing director), understanding that sustainability is a key issue not only for the event but for the sport at large. He has an extensive track record in sports, particularly in soccer. Having a director of sustainability was in his management plan from the very beginning as he saw it as an essential role.
GSB: I’ll say! What are the main sustainability initiatives for 2026?
RR: The last three sections of our Bid Book, which your readers can access online (click here), are devoted to sustainability in its broadest definition. Section 22 includes our proposal for a sustainable event management system, based on ISO 20121, and other international standards. ISO 20121 takes into account social, economic and environmental areas, including governance and other aspects to sustainably manage the World Cup. Section 23 details our human rights and labor strategy, including an extensive human rights risk assessment. Section 24 is devoted to environmental protection and enhancement. As our Bid proposition does not include the need to build any new stadiums (EDITOR’S NOTE: Morocco would have had to build eight new stadia!], we can then focus on other hosting priorities, including sustainability aspects.
GSB: …The most energy efficient stadium is the one you don’t have to build…
RR: Exactly. The three key themes of our bid are Unity, Certainty and Opportunity. The fact that all 23 stadiums in our bid — a list that will be culled down to 16 for the tournament — are already built is a foundation of its certainty. All stadiums will have an environmental certification by 2025, which is one of FIFA’s requirements. But, our commitment is to go beyond FIFA’s requirements. That is why we proposed a Sustainability+ strategy, looking to set a new standard for mega-sporting events and to maximize soccer’s contribution in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We will strive to offer an event that is carbon neutral and zero-waste, with no loss of biodiversity. Carbon emissions and water usage, as well as transportation will be managed from a best-in-class sustainability perspective. Healthy, sustainably produced food and beverage options will be available at all of our venues. Goods and services will be sourced via a sustainable procurement process.
Iconic Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, one of three Mexican venues that will play host to matches in the 2026 FIFA World Cup as part of the United Bid (Photo credit: Sportsnet.ca)
Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta is one of three Canadian venues that will host matches during the 2026 FIFA World Cup (Photo credit: Daily Hive)
MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is rumored to be the host of the championship match of the 2026 FIFA World Cup (Photo credit: New York Daily News)
GSB: From what I understand of Morocco 2026’s plan, all of their stadiums will either need to be built or renovated, which is a massive difference between the bids, sustainability-wise and otherwise. As far as transportation is concerned, if history is any guide, getting people to and from the three countries will make up the lion’s share of carbon emissions for your bid.
RR: You’re right. In fact 85 percent of emissions are projected to be transportation-related, with 51 percent resulting from international travel and 34 percent coming from inter and intra-city travel. Therefore, we have proposed a Carbon Management Plan, including reporting and reviewing of carbon reduction opportunities, training and awareness, offsetting and mitigation strategies. We will provide low-emissions transportation options for players, officials, the media, fans, and other visitors. Cycling and walking will also be encouraged.
GSB: I expect that, by 2026, EVs and EBuses will be in far greater supply than they are now. Finally, it wouldn’t be a GreenSportsBlog interview about a mega-sports event without a question about fan engagement. Here goes: What is the 2026 United Bid team’s plan for fan engagement on environmental sustainability?
RR: What a wonderful last question. We presented a Fan Engagement section, which was not part of the Bid requirements. Focused on sports for development, marketing and business, the section proposed the crafting of new approaches to connecting with fans, refining new methods of fan activation and testing what works and what doesn’t. In connection to sustainability, we hope to better harness the passion of fans towards sustainable development, which is a topic very close to my heart. I have worked with behavioral science experts, including Dr. Elke Weber, on opportunities to foster positive behavior change through sports, particularly soccer. A focus has been improving the communication of sustainability aspects to fans as well as their level of engagement on these issues. So, there are definitely a lot of interesting opportunities to further engage and empower fans to support sustainability.
GSB: I look forward to discussing that platform in the not-too-distant future. Good luck in Moscow on June 13!
RR: Thank you! I look forward to future discussions and tante grazie!
POSTSCRIPT #1: Here is a photo taken at today’s FIFA Congress in Moscow. Delegates from the United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States celebrate after winning the vote to host the 2026 World Cup
Victory! (Photo credit: Pavel Golovkin/AP)
POSTCRIPT #2: FIFA announced that no decision has been made on whether Canada, Mexico and the USA will all have guaranteed spots in the tournament. It has been customary for the host nation to be able to bypass the qualification process and gain an automatic bid into the World Cup. But there has never been a World Cup with three host countries. However, the 2026 World Cup will see the field expanded from the current 32-team format to 48, so that will make it easier for FIFA to provide three automatic bids.
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