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Gamechangers: the sports stars speaking out on the climate

From betting to bling, sport can appear a last haven of rampant unsustainability. But now athletes are sticking their heads above the podium to speak out on everything from global travel to greenwashing

From betting to bling, sport can appear a last haven of rampant unsustainability. But now athletes are sticking their heads above the podium to speak out on everything from global travel to greenwashing

Think of international sports stars, and what springs to mind? Footballers earning millions a week, awash with a blingtastic lifestyle? Check. Athletes jetting across the globe, leaping on to the winner’s podium with a carbon footprint the size of a yeti. That too. Pushing the frontiers of human performance, perhaps. But leading the tackling of the climate crisis? Not so much.

However, there’s another, emerging story that slips too often below the headlines on the sports pages. Take Innes FitzGerald. At 17, she’s the English Schools cross-country champion: an accolade that earned her the chance to compete in this year’s world championships. The only problem, from FitzGerald’s point of view, was their location: Australia. And that didn’t sit well with her passionate concern for the world’s climate. So she wrote to British Athletics, explaining that she couldn’t in all conscience take that fight – even at the risk of her future career.

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It’s an extraordinarily courageous stance, and one that earned her the title of Young Athlete of the Year at the BBC Green Sports Awards 2023. Courageous yes, but lonely too, you might think. Yet while FitzGerald might be out at the front of the pack, she’s far from alone. In Australia itself, a small galaxy of sports stars, led by former Wallabies captain David Pocock, have joined up to form The Cool Down campaign, pushing the country’s politicians to take action. As Pocock put it: “The people and places we love, as well as the sports we love so much, are threatened by climate change.” (That threat is all too tangible in Oz, where smoke from bushfires has halted play at both cricket matches and the Australian Open.

“We have the resources in our own backyard to be a world leader in this field,” Pocock added, “and, as a sporting nation, we’re used to performing on the world stage. It’s time we harness that to focus on strong climate action.” Among his backers is Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins, overall winner of the Green Sports Award, whose Cricket for Climate initiative has helped grassroots clubs install solar panels and reduce fossil fuel use.

Sports legends like these can connect with an audience that green campaigners often fail to reach. And the story of Forest Green Rovers, the super green, pro-vegan football club backed by Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, which also scooped one of the BBC awards, proves that environmental commitment needn’t come at the expense of sporting success.

We have the resources in our own backyard to be a world leader in this field

But there’s a long way to go before that commitment is the rule, not the exception. The phrase ‘Cool Down’ has also been adopted by the Rapid Transition Alliance to highlight how some of the world’s most polluting companies bankroll skiing in particular. Ironically, they continue to do so even after the Winter Olympics had to resort to covering the slopes in artificial snow, because the real stuff was so thin on the ground. The alliance partnered with campaigners Badvertising to ask: “Why are polluters who steal the snow allowed to sponsor winter sports?” Why indeed.

And that’s where the sports stars themselves can take a stance, says Dave Hampton, a former rower turned environmentalist. Together with Olympics canoeing gold medallist Etienne Stott, he founded the campaign group Champions for Earth. In Hampton’s words, they’re doing so because “they have the values and attributes that are absolutely perfect for tackling a problem that appears insurmountable. Because they don’t do ‘impossible’. It’s not in their vocabulary.”

In the past, sports stars often shied away from speaking out on ethical issues, he says, not least because coaches and agents advised against it. But Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals helped shift the dial, he adds. And now, with the likes of Cummins, Pocock and FitzGerald leading the way, it’s shifting fast. “For years,” Hampton says, “they’ve been kept on a leash. But not any more. Now they’re ready to go.”

Martin Wright is a director of Positive News

Main image: Marcos Montiel

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