As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, the thought of attending an Olympic opening ceremony or other major sporting event might seem like some far-off dream.

But if major public events are to have a sustainable future, now is precisely the time we should be thinking — or rethinking — about them. Specifically, we need to take a fresh look at what sustainability and resiliency mean in the context of major events. That includes not only the events themselves but also the venues and infrastructure in the cities that host them.

As we’ve experienced with the coronavirus pandemic, a hurricane or act of terrorism can shut down a major event or an entire city as easily as COVID-19 did. The principles that drive sustainability and resiliency are largely the same, regardless of causation.

If a city is to construct or upgrade the facilities needed to host an Olympic Games or other major event, hard questions must be answered on how to assure — and pay for — the sustainability and resiliency of its investment. Among those questions:

  • Is the venue and associated infrastructure physically resilient? One of the consequences of 9/11 was the acute awareness that the nation’s sports stadiums and other large public venues are highly vulnerable to terrorism. The security industry has since developed a body of knowledge and tools for hardening these facilities and protecting them from attack. Physical structure hardening, evacuation, wayfinding and other design concepts that address terrorism-related resiliency can be adapted for flooding, hurricanes and other climate change-induced events. The cost of physical resiliency might seem high, but the risk of ignoring it is often far higher.
  • Is the venue and associated infrastructure socially sustainable? Major venues constructed for events like the Olympics have historically lacked effective plans for sustaining their operation beyond the event itself. Social sustainability, therefore, should be a primary consideration in design. Venues constructed in low-income neighborhoods must consider the disadvantaged communities they could be displacing and how these facilities might help revitalize and sustain these communities before, during and after the event.
  • Is the venue and associated infrastructure environmentally sustainable? Stadiums and other structures built for major events should be constructed using sustainable and resilient materials and other green building practices. The Los Angeles Football Club’s new world-class sport and entertainment venue is a prime example. To achieve LEED Gold Certification, the club prioritized the use of recycled materials, diverted 97% of construction debris and incorporated other sustainable elements that support environmental responsibility and overall sustainability.
  • Is the venue and associated infrastructure financially sustainable? The financial feasibility of the Olympics and other major events depends in large part on sponsorship funding. Sponsors, in turn, seek event partners to help build or reinforce their public image through positive association. In an increasing number of cases, corporate sponsors are focusing sponsorship dollars on events that limit waste, support recycling and meet their other sustainability goals. Environmental sustainability, in order words, can impact financial sustainability.
  • Is the organization behind the event resilient? The success of a major event largely depends on the people who lead and operate it. A considerable body of knowledge suggests organizations that have highly trained workforces and flat organizational structures are more reliable and resilient than those with hierarchical structures and less cross-training. Organizational cultures where information is freely shared, likewise, perform better than those with poor communication. Questions of organizational resiliency can be particularly sensitive among organizers; in some cases, the answer calls for significant organizational change.

For big events like the Olympics to be sustainable, venue and infrastructure design must be informed by social, economic and environmental impacts. That’s the bottom line. Done right, it can result in facilities that not only take climate change into account but also enhance the safety, welfare and quality of life for all society.


The need for new resilient and sustainable design extends beyond sports venues. Roads and bridges, water and wastewater systems, oil and gas pipelines and the entire energy generation, transmission and distribution chain are among the many types of infrastructure threatened by natural disaster. Learn how their planning, design and construction are now being reimagined for a more resilient future. 

Read the White Paper

Joel Farrier, PE, ENV SP, is regional manager of environmental services for Burns & McDonnell. He leads a team of professionals who deliver resilient and sustainable environmental solutions for clients.