Feature08 Jun 2020

Athletes and the environment: answering the sustainability call


Runners training in rural Kenya (© NN Running Team/Dan Vernon)

We continue our series to mark this year’s World Environment Day by highlighting some of ways our sport's athletes have become involved in environmental conservation and sustainability efforts.


Respecting the environment is respecting yourself.

That’s how Catherine Ibarguen encapsulated her relationship with the natural environment in a recent World Athletics interview. The Olympic triple jump champion isn’t alone in that intimate, personal assessment. Like people in all walks of life, athletes from across the sporting landscape are becoming increasingly alarmed about the impacts of climate change on their communities, on their health, their livelihoods and their future. They’re demanding concrete action and tangible results from their political and industry leaders, and from their neighbors and friends.

Ample examples in recent years have illustrated how sport is already being substantially impacted by climate change, from event relocations and cancellations forced by extreme weather to heat-related affects on the health and well-being of those who participate in sports - all fueled by climate change. One recent World Health Organization study found that heat stress linked to climate change is likely to cause 38,000 deaths a year globally between 2030 and 2050.

The situation will only grow worse as efforts to reduce CO2 emissions continue to fall well short of the targets that need to be met in order to curb the damage that’s being done.

The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare how vulnerable the sports industry is to catastrophic global events. Financially, it’s been disastrous. The Sustainability Report reported last month that a recent ESPN study discovered that at least $12 billion will be wiped from sport’s collective balance statements in the virus’s aftermath. Sports marketing company Two Circles has estimated that sport sponsorship could plummet by more than $17 billion year-on-year (37%). Over the course of just a few weeks, hundreds of events had been cancelled, entire seasons, multiple world championships, international tournaments and an Olympic Games postponed.

But as devastating as the human and economic costs have been, more alarming still is that many experts believe that climate change will ultimately be much more destructive and deadly than the new coronavirus if allowed to progress at its current rate.


Athletes training in rural Kenya


Sport’s power to deliver solutions

So what can sport do to prevent, or at least mitigate some of those impacts?

Sport is in a position to begin and even lead many of the necessary conversations about ways to combat climate change, said Niclas Svenningsen, Manager of the UN Climate Change Global Climate Action Programme.

“Sport is not only one of the first victims of climate change, but also attracts tremendous attention across all parts of society – much more than politics or science, in fact,” Svenningsen said in an email to World Athletics.

“By using that unique position to show how a team, a club, a league, or individual athletes walk the talk, they have the power to reach people who otherwise would not understand that all of us are affected by the climate change crisis, and all of us can contribute to solving it.”

For its part, World Athletics launched its sustainability strategy in April, with the goal of making the organisation carbon neutral by 2030 at its core. The ten-year strategy is designed to deliver tangible benefits across environmental, social and economic sustainability while its ultimate vision is to become the leading international sports federation in delivering best in class sustainable events.

Athletes answering the call

A new generation of athletes is also answering that call.

Eliza McCartney of New Zealand, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist in the pole vault, is keenly working to be part of the solution.

“The more I started learning about the issues our environment is facing, the more shocked I was each time, to the point where I thought I could no longer ignore it. I had to be part of the change - suddenly it felt morally wrong to not take action.”

She decided to pursue a degree in Environmental Science.

“Environmental science is quite literally the study of our environment, and particularly how humans interact with it. Since I'm studying in New Zealand, a lot of my degree is based on New Zealand environments and the issues we are facing from human impact. Being an island, we have such a unique, remarkable assemblage of species, and if we lose them, they are gone forever. I really love that I can be involved in the work towards a sustainable future here.”

Like McCartney, Italy's Carolina Visca, the reigning European U20 champion in the javelin throw, is hoping to put environmental sustainability at the heart of her post-athletics career. 

The rising Italian star, who studies mechanical engineering, spent part of her coronavirus lockdown engaging fans and other athletes in discussions about environmental issues through her new 'Green Mind' video project on her Instagram and Facebook pages, whose launch was prompted by the clear panoramas that were suddenly becoming more visible from the terrace of her flat in the Italian capital.

"The churches, the most visible large monuments, the airport, the Olympic stadium - they were all starting to appear more clearly," she said. "This is because CO2 emissions were reduced."

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Today's key word is: WASTE DISPOSAL♻️ I wanted to give life to a project called “𝑮𝒓𝒆𝒆𝒏 𝑴𝒊𝒏𝒅"in which many topics will be treated but united by a fundamental theme: eco sustainability🍃. I thank all those who are helping me to spread this message. On today's episode we have European Champion @nadia.battocletti ; she will tell us how her region keeps the environment clean during this pandemic. But now no more chatter, I leave you to watch the first video of this project. Just a small gesture from each of us to breathe cleaner air. 💚 @atleticaitaliana @worldathletics @europeanathletics @get.waste.ed #ecosustainability #ecosystem #greenmind #cleanworld

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Some things she learned from the project spurred her on to take a certified online course on hybrid and electric cars which explored both their functionality and their global economic impact - a topic very much in line with her field of study and passion for cars.

"We ourselves need to learn to breathe cleaner air," she said. With that in mind, she wants to apply her studies to the development of better and more efficient hybrid and electric cars, which she believes "will increasingly be one of human beings' most important needs."

Runners from East Africa, many who were either raised in rural farming settings, or have taken up farming during their profession running careers, have long been known as strong stewards of their environment. 

"For a long time I've had a love for the environment,” said three-time world half marathon and twice world cross country champion Geoffrey Kamworor. “When I was young I could take care of the cattle in the forest, where I enjoyed the beautiful nature.


Kenyan distance runner Geoffrey Kamworor


"For that reason I learned the importance of environmental conservation, which was something also emphasised at school. Apart from practising farming we normally complete our runs in the forest, where the beautiful nature and the fresh air we enjoy there acts as a further reminder of the importance of conserving the environment around us.”

Kamworor has planted more than 2000 trees in his community over the past three months. Similarly, Rhonex Kipruto, the world 10km record holder, recently planted 4000 trees in and around his village in Kamwosor to help prevent soil erosion and landslides that affect his hilly community.

Lifestyle changes

Many athletes have adopted more low-key approaches by simply adjusting their lifestyles to live in a more sustainable way without necessarily considering themselves campaigners or eco-warriors.

"I'm not sure if I (can be considered) an 'eco' athlete, but I recycle and try to live on the minimalist side," said Mirela Demireva, the Olympic silver medallist in the high jump two years ago. "I reuse, reduce and recycle."

Elena Vallortigara has similarly adopted a more planet-healthy routine. The Italian high jumper avoids plastic, selected a sponsor because of the ecologically-friendly materials used in their products and drives an eco-friendly car.

Leisure activities have also emerged that work to reduce waste specifically in the running community.

Plogging, a portmanteau of 'plucking' and 'jogging', is a trend among running groups whose members pick up litter along their running routes - while they're out running.

Waste reduction efforts 

Zach Michael, who competed as a distance runner for Central College in Naperville, Illinois, near Chicago, spent his two final years at the university working on a waste diversion project that diverted two tons of waste from local landfills. 

“My job (at the school’s Office of Sustainability) over the past two years was to take the items that the school didn’t want anymore - desks, chairs, tables, envelopes - and try to either sell them or donate them. Some of my proudest diversions were donating over 200 cushioned chairs to local people in Naperville and some churches, and selling an electric car that no longer worked for the school’s purposes.”

More companies and charities encouraging waste reduction efforts in the running community’s are emerging, too.

One of the oldest in One World Running, founded in 1986 by a group of runners in Boulder, Colorado. Since then, the organisation has sent thousands of new and "near-new" athletics shoes, t-shirts, shorts, medical and school supplies to countries in the developing world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rerun Clothing is a small UK company aiming to prolong the life of running clothes and equipment to divert them from landfills. Ultrarunner Dan Lawson, who runs the company along with this family, solicits donations of used shirts and running shoes that are then either resold or repurposed. He's also working to encourage race organisers to reduce the amount of textiles produced for events.

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TRAINERS. . We are getting a big donation of trainers (and finishers tees) together for @collectiveaidorg this week. These are trainers that are no longer good for running but still have years of use left in them. Refugees have been arriving at camp barefoot and in flipflops so these will be much appreciated. . Head over to @collectiveaidorg for more info on their work and here are a few tips for donating shoes... . 😱The last few trainers are pictures that are too gone to donate. Still don't throw these in the bin. Take them to a shoe recycling bank. Some charity shops will take them and the dump should have a bin for shoes. . 👍Give your shoes a little clean before donating. Muddy shoes will most likely be landfilled by charity shops and cannot be recycled(picture 4 is some if the trainers we have put aside for cleaning) Whilst it's not advised to put trainers through the wash for lengevity ,a cold cycle before donating would be acceptable. Just be sure to air dry them as the heat from radiator or tumble dryer will mess with the glue . 😗Tie them or tape them together so they don't lose their pair . 🐸Wear them longer! Whilst it's good we have shoes to donate many (most) could have been worn for many more miles more and still been donated. . 👽If your shoes are very muddy after a run make the effort to rinse them off even if you don't feel like it! . Dried mud will weaken the material and lead to holes. . Thank YOU Rerunners. Many of these trainers were collected at the @nationalrunningshow . We also have several boxes waiting to go to @forgottenfeet when they are up and running. . #werunwithrerun #sustainabletrainers #calaisrefugees #donations #textilewaste #lovenotlandfill #zerowastesport #marathonrunner #textilewaste #ultrarunner #plogging #secondhandfirst #wearthechange #fashionrevolution

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"If you think about reducing the textile waste across the running industry," he told Runners World, "60 to 65% of all the unwanted clothes we get are finishers t-shirts.

“I think we really need to give runners the option to ask themselves, 'Do I really need this?'" 

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics