Play the Game – Sport, Environment and Climate Change – A Note from Australia

Sport is characterized by contradictions, conflicts and hypocrisies that speak simultaneously of growing awareness, positive action and hope in terms of environmental awareness and sustainability, say researchers Brett Hutchins and Libby Lester in this commentary article that explains how sport can play a role in protecting and creating a world worth playing in.

The past month marked the staging of an important event in Australia’s sporting calendar, even though it happened under the radar of the media and sports fans alike. The Sports Environment Alliance (SEA) 2017 summit was held at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) as the Victorian and Tasmanian cricketers of Sheffield Shield beat and headed for a dead end on the playing field. Representatives of a wide range of national and international sports appeared on the podium and in the audience during the day, including tennis, American football, Australian football, surfing, golf and sailing.

Now in its second year, the SEA Summit signals a growing awareness of the crucial relationship between sport, sustainability and environmental issues in the national and global sport industries. This shift is both a source of optimism and criticism when considering the role sport can play in communicating the impacts of climate change and carbon intensive lifestyles to the millions of people who play and watch. .

Sport has unique potential in this regard. A source of massively popular shows and activities, sport is located at the crossroads of culture, nature, economic development, regional planning, tourism and the market. This achievement has, for example, been registered at the United Nations General Assembly. Speaking on the UN Sustainable Development Goals in December 2016, Peter Stone (Australian Mission Advisor to the UN) referred to “the popularity of sport, its ability as a platform for communication and ability to connect with people ”.

The capability of this platform is demonstrated by Forest Green Rovers, a League Two football club in the UK. Despite their lower league status, the Rovers have been named “the world’s greenest sports team” by The New Yorker magazine. In a remarkable series of environmental actions and branding initiatives, the club’s New Lawn welcome field, with a capacity of 5,000 spectators, includes solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system and charging stations for electric cars. The team play on an organic and vegan field and even the gardener’s lawn mower is solar powered. These measures are being led by the club’s president and owner, Dale Vince, who also owns the “green electricity” company, Ecotricity.

Athletes also use sport as a platform to raise awareness of environmental threats and issues. Few activities emphasize the interrelationship between natural landscapes and sporting activity more than alpine competitions and the Olympic Winter Games. Protect Our Winters is an alliance of athletes, activists and brands in the United States and Europe whose efforts are aimed at solving an obvious problem for snow sports. Climate change means that “snow levels are increasing at altitude and winters are shorter”.

Shifting both season and altitude, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro generated a poignant moment brought about by rising sea levels in the central Pacific Ocean. Weightlifter David Katoatau of the small island nation of Kirabati danced off the stage to applause from the audience after his performance in the men’s 105kg Group B competition. His dancing was motivated neither by joy nor by the desire to entertain. Katoatau has deliberately sought media attention around the world to talk about the perilous future facing the people of Kirabati due to climate change and extreme weather events. The upcoming 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast will be Katoatau’s last multi-sport competition and his last chance to dance internationally for his home island.

The upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are already the subject of an organized international environmental campaign. A coalition of groups and NGOs, including Markets for Change and Friends of the Earth Japan, are challenging the legality and sustainability of wood sourcing practices used in the construction of major Games venues, including the Olympic Stadium. This unwanted attention follows the identification of Malaysian tropical plywood on a construction site from a company linked to suspected illegal logging practices in Sarawak. The use of this wood is an issue given the detailed sustainability plan and procurement code developed by the Games Organizing Committee and their aspiration to “demonstrate a truly sustainable event model”.

At the top of the sports pyramid in the United States, the Sacramento Kings of basketball recently hosted a “Sustainability Spotlight Night” for their game against the Denver Nuggets, which was attended by 17,000 fans. The new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of the NFL Falcons and the Atlanta United of Major League Soccer, has just become the first professional sports venue in the United States to receive Platinum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. ) of the US Green Building Council.

While this is an admirable achievement, the award of this certification highlights the need for an open debate on the strengths and limitations of these scoring systems in driving behavior change. The debate is necessary because of the inevitable contradictions produced by the pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line’ (economic, social and environmental outcomes) by leagues and teams, stadium operators, sponsors, clothing and equipment manufacturers and many sports-related companies. For example, the new stadium in Atlanta is a shining example of innovation in sustainable design. But, in exchange for a considerable naming right, it also bears the label of a German automaker whose profits have long depended on the extractive and polluting oil industries.

The tension identified here is precisely why sport is useful for thinking and communicating about environmental issues. Much like the conflicting environmental futures that are now open to all of us, sport is a site of “cosmic ambivalence” apparently characterized by contradictions, conflicts and hypocrisies that simultaneously speak of a growing awareness, ‘positive action and hope.

As the examples presented in this article show, sport creates space for important initiatives and discussions on the environment and sustainability and places them on one of the biggest stages available in global media and popular culture. This opens up the possibility of serious engagement with fans, citizens and the general public, going beyond the hyper-partisanship that characterizes many discussions on climate change and so-called green issues.

Seen as a matter of land, air, water, weather and food, the future of the environment is the future of sport, each having an impact on the other. Promoting this message and the resulting changes are part of the raison d’être of the SEA Summit. In that sense, SEA President and Dean of Sports Administration Malcolm Speed ​​has set an example at the CWM through his attention and questions to stakeholders.

A real sign of progress at future summits will see Speed ​​joined by similarly engaged personalities such as Australian football’s Gillon McLachlan, rugby league’s Todd Greenberg, netball’s Paolina Hunt, football’s David Gallop, James Sutherland. of cricket, Cameron Clyne of the rugby union and the Kate Palmer Sports Commission. Their presence would be a welcome display of national leadership and a visible recognition of the role of sport in protecting and creating a world worth playing in.


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Sara R. Cicero