Jesse J singing “it’s not about the money” at the closing ceremony of 2012 Olympics is apt when considering the “greening” of the Olympics. Olympic “projects” with Olympic-sized public budgets ought to be able to raise the bar for green and sustainable development. As the baton is handed to Rio 2016, with a promise to focus on nature preservation and urban legacy, it is worth distinguishing how green the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics are as projects, how green “legacy Olympic projects” are (or will become) and the wider green impact and benefit of the Olympics as a whole.

An Olympics project, even allowing for remediation of derelict or contaminated areas, is unlikely to ever be carbon neutral but each Olympic delivery body can seek to implement its Olympics project in the most sustainable and environmentally neutral manner that a very large budget allows. In doing so Olympic delivery organisations and stakeholders need to focus on real and effective solutions and avoid the wider green message being undermined by “green fripperies” or negative press. For example, an abortive search for a green fuel to power the Olympic flame or symbolic renewable projects such as wind turbines unless the wind resource is a viable energy source at the location.

Olympic projects are delivering on innovative and sustainably focused design, construction and developing solutions which cascade benefits for future projects in the built environment worldwide. Reading the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reporting on the green success of Beijing 2008 and London 2012 demonstrate the progress made and success being delivered.

Legacy benefits are likely to vary across Olympics. The Beijing 2008 UNEP report highlights the wide ranging legacy benefits for Beijing as a whole and the huge catalyst that the 2008 Olympics provided. The starting point for Beijing and China in terms of energy and infrastructure are relevant to the achievements and in measuring and reporting “success”. In terms of London 2012 and its legacy focus, the key hope is that once the temporary infrastructure is removed the private and public development around Stratford and the Olympic Park will further deliver on the sustainable and green foundations laid. For future legacy developments, the major difference from an Olympics project is the lower budget and, generally, the need for green technology and solutions to provide an acceptable return on investment. At Rio 2016 60% of the Olympics infrastructure will be removed after the event and will create a huge opportunity (and risk) on the demand and funding for legacy projects.

Perhaps the main impact of the “green Olympian idea” is not the “project” but instead the Olympics’ impact on the world, individuals, corporates, NGOs and governments. The Olympics has a huge impact with the “green tide” lifting the bar on what is expected and what can be delivered. The decisions of individuals in terms of their purchasing and recycling habits and the strategy of corporates in terms of their environmental policies and how they value and measure the return on investment in going green or greener are all affected. The ability to measure this zeitgeist impact is hard but it is clearly a lasting legacy for generations to come.