The climate change game changers: sports stars speak out

Feb 2, 2024 | News

What comes to mind when you think of international sports stars? What comes to mind when you think of international sports stars? Check. Check. It’s also possible. Maybe pushing the limits of human performance. But leading the fight against climate change? Not so much.

There’s another story that is emerging, but it is often buried beneath the headlines in the sports pages. Take Innes FitzGerald. She’s the English Schools Cross-Country Champion at 17 years old. This accolade earned her the opportunity to compete in the world championships this year. FitzGerald was only concerned about the location of the world championships: Australia. This didn’t go well with her passion for the climate of the world. She wrote to British Athletics explaining that, even if it meant risking her future career, she could not in good conscience compete.

This is a very courageous position, and it’s one that has earned her the title of Young Athlete Of The Year at the BBC Green Sports Awards 2020. You might think that FitzGerald is courageous but also lonely. FitzGerald is not alone, even though she may be at the forefront of the pack. A small group of Australian sports stars, led by former Wallabies Captain David Pocock, has formed The Cool Down campaign to push Australia’s politicians into action. Pocock said: “The people, places, and sports we love are threatened by climate change.” This threat is very real in Australia, where smoke from bushfires has halted both cricket matches and the Australian Open.

Pocock said, “We have all the resources we need to be world leaders in this field, and, as a sports nation, we are used to performing at the highest level on the international stage.” It’s time to harness this energy and focus on strong climate actions. Among his supporters is Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins. His Cricket for Climate initiative helped grassroots clubs install solar panels and reduce fossil fuel usage.

These sports legends can reach an audience that many green campaigners fail to reach. Forest Green Rovers is a super green, pro-vegan football club that was backed by Ecotricity founder Dale Vince. They also won a BBC award. This story proves environmental commitment doesn’t have to come at the cost of sporting success.

We have the resources to be a leader in this field.

But it’s still a long way before this commitment becomes the norm, not the rare exception. The Rapid Transition Alliance has also adopted the phrase “Cool Down” to highlight the fact that some of the most polluting corporations in the world fund skiing. Ironically, this is still happening even after the Winter Olympics were forced to cover the slopes with artificial snow because the natural stuff was so scarce. The alliance joined forces with the campaigners Badvertising and asked: “Why is it that polluters who steal snow are allowed to sponsor winter sport?”

Dave Hampton, an ex-rower turned environmentalist, says that sports stars can take a stand. Together with gold medalist in canoeing Etienne Stott, he founded Champions for Earth. Hampton says they are doing this because “they possess the values and characteristics that are absolutely ideal for tackling a seemingly insurmountable problem.” They don’t believe in the impossible. It’s not part of their vocabulary.”

He says that in the past, athletes often avoided speaking out about ethical issues because their coaches and agents discouraged them. Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free meals at schools helped to shift the dial. Now, with Cummins, Pocock, and FitzGerald at the forefront, things are changing fast. Hampton says that for years, they’ve been on a leash. But no more. Now they’re ready for go.”

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