Climate Action

How to use sport to tackle climate change

Leszek J. Sibilski
Consultant, The World Bank
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Sport matters to us. Most of the world passionately follows sports, whether it’s football, baseball, cycling, tennis, or the athletes competing at the Olympics or at the World Cup.

Climate change also matters to us. There’s no point denying it – temperatures are going up. According to the World Bank Group’s “Turn Down the Heat” reports, the planet could warm from its current global mean temperature of 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels to as high as 4°C by 2100, even if countries fulfill current emission-reduction pledges.

This rise in temperatures can particularly affect athletes. According to a new study from the University of Waterloo, Canada and Management Center Innsbruck, Austria, even with conservative climate projections, only 11 of the previous 19 Olympic host cities could hold the Winter Olympic Games in the coming decades. Climate conditions around the world are changing at an increasingly rapid rate.

One of the latest victims of extreme weather in sports was the Chinese tennis player, Shuai Peng. On September 5, 2014 she was forced to retire from the U.S. Open semifinal match due to heat related cramping. After collapsing twice during the match, she was helped off the court in a wheelchair.

Why mobilize Olympians, one might wonder? According to the World Olympians Association (WOA): “Olympians have a special capacity to use the power and neutrality of sport for the good of society, employing its unique potential to foster social cohesion wherever it is needed. Olympians also personify the value of excellence, teamwork, and discipline. They can serve as role models to help bring communities together. Across all ethnic, religious, and social divides.”

Naturally, this call included the World Bank Group’s most famous Olympian, former president James Wolfensohn, who represented Australia in fencing during the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. He currently serves as a member of the Honorary Board of the International Paralympic Committee.

Furthermore, the WOA mission states: “To serve the needs of Olympians at all stages of their lives and to mobilize Olympians helping them to make the world a better place through the daily practice of Olympism.”

It makes sense. Striving for environmental excellence runs parallel to achieving distinction in athletics. Environmental governance has also become a structural part of the Olympic framework and thinking. At the Centennial Olympic Congress (1994), concern for the environment became the third dimension of Olympism, included in the official charter (Chapter 1, Rule 2, Paragraph 13) and the role of the IOC was broadened “to encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and to require that the Olympic Games are held accordingly.” The Charter also states (Chapter 1, Rule 2, Paragraph 14) that it is an IOC responsibility “to promote a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host cities and host countries.” The Olympic Movement founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was first and foremost an educator who saw sport as a powerful catalyst for social and economic development. He believed sport could bring about “the harmonious development of man” and “the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

After we at Connect4Climate (C4C) announced our initiative, Sport4Climate, to over 100,000 current and former Olympians through the World Olympians Associations (WOA) social media outlets, we realized the program would require conventional and unconventional communication methods to spread the message that the global sport community is mobilizing to tackle climate change.

It became evident to me that after talking the talk, it was time to walk the walk. We teamed up with our new partner, Achilles International (AI), a global program encouraging disabled athletes to participate in long distance road racing, to run the New York City Marathon.

On a cold and windy Sunday, on November 2, 2014, Denise Smith of Colorado, who lives with mild left sided cerebral palsy, Stacy Bolyard of Colorado, and I served as guides through the five-borough journey of New York City along with 50,000 other runners from around the globe. We were the very first sport team of our Sport4Climate initiative, with the hopes of serving as trailblazers for future activities. Before we heard the start gun, Lucia Grenna, the C4C Program Manger said in a motherly way, “Good luck and be safe out there.” The President of AI, Dr. Richard Traum, a disabled wheelchair racer, reflected, “After the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon due to devastation of Hurricane Sandy, we athletes have to take under serious consideration climate change as a part of our prepping equation. We have to be a part of the movement and support it wholeheartedly.”

During one of the stops at the water station, Denise declared, “I dedicate this race to future generations for which we should save the world!”

“We have one planet and we have to protect it,” said Stacy. With such deep intellectual motivation, we advanced towards the finish line, or perhaps I should say “windsurfed” as the wind was hovering 50 miles per hour.

Denise arrived at the finish line in Central Park with her Personal Record of 6:30:38! Her genuine smile and gratitude said everything. She is my hero. We finished the marathon, 26.2 miles, despite the wind and cold temperatures! We were chilly and sore, but rewarded with finisher’s medals around our necks.

Many of the spectators and fellow runners asked us about our new logos of Sport4Climate that we were displaying. The seed of Connect4Climate’s message has been planted, now we have to nurture it, and keep running.

And we have to keep running as well. As a matter of fact, we all agreed that we should run other marathons. Stacy Bolyard is also registered as the Marathon Maniac (#8727), and had run 14 marathons only this year. She is thinking of completing marathons abroad, since for her, running is an adventure activity. Denise is eager to run the Boston Marathon in 2016, which is considered by many the pinnacle marathon. I have such a deep sentiment towards London due to my experience at the 2012 London Olympics. Perhaps the 2015 London Marathon should be my next big race?

Sports figures have a big role to play. Because what they do is popular and unifying on every continent of Earth, they can play a vital role in delivering a powerful message that the changing climate is affecting us all. Sport keeps humans healthy but it can also keep the planet healthy too. To paraphrase the motto of the YMCA, sport can regenerate the body, mind, spirit, and nature – enhancing the individual and the land in which he or she lives.

This article is published in collaboration with The World Bank’s People Spaces and Deliberation Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Leszek Jan Sibilski is a consultant to the World Bank’s External and Corporate Relations, Global Engagement Department (ECRGE), as a part of the Connect4Climate program

Image: Splinters of ice peel off from one of the sides of the Perito Moreno glacier in a process of a unexpected rupture during the southern hemisphere’s winter months, near the city of El Calafate in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz, southern Argentina, July 7, 2008. REUTERS/Andres Forza.

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