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Community Impact

Earth Day 2024: Special Olympics Sustainability Project Is Making Waves in Belgium And Italy

Beige canvas bag hanging over someone’s shoulder with the text ‘We’re Champions’ and the Special Olympics Belgium logo.
Reusable eco-friendly bags used at Special Olympics Belgium events.

In celebration of Earth Day 2024, we explore a powerful Special Olympics sustainability project that is making waves in Belgium and Italy.

What impact do Special Olympics sports events—from food and travel to branding and waste—have on the environment? More importantly, what can we do about it? These are the questions that Special Olympics teams in Belgium and Italy have been busily exploring since 2022 when they embarked on the European Union (EU)-funded Special Olympics Environmental Sustainability Impact project.

Learning from World Games Berlin 2023

In order to develop a pathway forward, we need to have a sense of where we stand. That’s why the project teams in Belgium and Italy—led by SO Europe Foundation—dived into a period of intense research following the project kick-off meeting in November 2023. A key aspect of this was analysing the sustainability challenges and achievements of the Special Olympics World Games Berlin 2023. These Games, which pursued an ambitious and award-winning green agenda, offered key lessons to the project team which have fed into the development of a draft Sport Sustainability Framework (SSF). The framework is now being tested for proof of concept at various Special Olympics events in Italy and Belgium.

A young girl with dark hair walks along a blue race track wearing a racing bib with the Special Olympics Italia logo on it and the number 75.
Special Olympics Italy is currently testing a draft Sport Sustainability Framework at its events.

Colin Kenny, Senior Manager—Project and Grants of SO Europe Foundation, emphasises the significance of sustainability for Special Olympics: “As an organisation that champions inclusion and advocates for a vulnerable population, it is essential that we are sustainable in everything we do. Also, international sports organisations such as Special Olympics generally, due to their large carbon footprint at international events, need to do more in this space. We therefore hope that this project can show other international sports organisations what is possible around sustainability.”

Lisa Ferzetti of Special Olympics Italy echoes this point: “Our world is complex and every problem we face has roots deep inside other aspects of our society. Climate change affects every aspect of our lives and Special Olympics can’t ignore this. Special Olympics has a great sense of responsibility which differentiates it from other sport organisations and it is important that we use our voice to do some advocacy for the environment.”

Sport Sustainability Framework: A guideline for our entire movement

After a draft framework document has been tested at Special Olympics events in Belgium and Italy, a final SSF document will be developed with best practices and recommendations. The hope is that these will ultimately be shared throughout the entire Special Olympics movement and even filter through to the wider sports world beyond.

An old fashioned coke dispenser.
Recycling opportunities at Special Olympics Belgium events.

Although the project runs until the end of November 2024, Audrey Desclée, who works on the project at Special Olympics Belgium, has already noticed a change of outlook among her team. She notes, “We have started asking ourselves certain questions which we didn’t before when preparing our events, and this is already a very important step. This does not mean that we will not still face a number of challenges, but it does mean that we can work more effectively on the points that need to be addressed. Learning from other Special Olympics Programmes also helps a lot in discovering of improving ways to be even more effective and ecological.”

Earth Day offers a moment to consider the beauty and fragility of our planet, the damage that humans have done but also the possibility of a better future. Lisa says that Special Olympics Italy’s message for Earth Day is simple: “Our focus is to change perspectives on sustainability as we do towards disability through sport, inviting people not to remain "on the sidelines" but to be an active part in caring for the planet.“ This hopeful, ‘can do’ attitude is echoed by Special Olympics Belgium. Audrey concludes, “We can all learn from each other. Every step leads us towards greater respect for our environment and our planet!”

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Education and Culture Executive Agency (EACEA). Neither the European Union nor EACEA can be held responsible for them.

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