On Your Mark, Get Set, GO! Who Will Win the Race Between Sports and Climate Change

Everyone knows that climate change has impacted coastal living, contributes to extreme weather events, and is a threat to our water and food security.  But one impact that flies under the radar is the impact of climate change on sports and recreation.  There are about two hundred sports with international recognition and an estimated eight thousand sports played worldwide.  Everyone from children to Olympic athletes to fans are experiencing just how disruptive climate change can be on the sports they play and love.

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Figure 1: Runners in the women’s marathon at the Corniche during the IAAF World Athletics Championships

The increase in temperature is playing a vital role in the enjoyment of sports. Organizations, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), have already adapted to increased temperatures to protect athletes and spectators. During the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Qatar, races were scheduled at midnight to avoid the worst of the heat.  However, the later start could not avoid the humid, 105°F heat, causing 28 of the 68 runners to drop out and 30 runners to require medical assistance (one required brief hospitalization).  The temperature at midnight is about 15°F above the Qatar’s average nighttime temperature of 90°F. In response to what happened in Qatar, the IOC has moved the 2020 Olympic marathon from Tokyo to Sapporo.   Sapporo is located in the mountainous region of Northern Japan and is expected to have temperatures about FIFA has also moved the timing of the 2020 World Cup. To help mitigate the impact of heat on their athletes, for the first time since their inaugural season 92 years ago, the 2020 World Cup will be a winter, not summer event.     Because of the increased temperatures, winter sports are also at risk.  Higher temperatures decrease snowfall amounts and increase melting ice and snow.  The effects of climate change on sports are not only seen through increased temperatures.  In Britain, increased precipitation makes fields soggy and unplayable, affecting sports like golf, cricket, and soccer.  Droughts, heavy rains, increased temperatures, and sea level rise are limiting sporting venues worldwide.

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Figure 2: The Old Course at St. Andrews golf course in Scotland has been flooded because of sea level rise and stronger storms

In 2018, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the sports sector launched the Sports for Climate Action Framework at COP24 in Poland.   This collaborative framework unites sports organizations, athletes, teams, and fans to raise awareness and preform actions that meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.  The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework has two main goals; first, to create a clear pathway for the global sports community to combat climate change, and second, to use sports to facilitate global climate action.  The Sports for Climate Action plan lays out three steps for climate action: (1) to measure and understand, (2) take action, and (3) educate and inspire.

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Figure 33: Andy Hunt, CEO of the World Sailing Federation addresses the panel discussion ‘Sports for Climate Action’ at COP24 in Katowice

An organization’s actions need to focus on mitigating their impact on climate change.  To do this, organizations must plan to avoid creating GHG emissions, use less resources, find cleaner and efficient substitutions, and report their carbon footprint and related actions.  An organization must measure their carbon footprint to provide a baseline that shows how activities impact the climate.  Understanding their carbon footprint leads to better decision-making to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Most importantly, an organization needs to educate and inspire people to do their part to mitigate climate effects and raise awareness about sustainability.

Many organizations, like the IOC, have contributed to the climate crisis through GHG emissions from travel, energy use, venue construction, and other means. The IOC and the other sporting organizations that have signed onto the Sports for Climate Action initiative recognize that sports organizations have a responsibility to reduce impacts and take steps to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  The IOC has emerged as a leader in this initiative and plans to leverage the power of sports to support their efforts of incentivizing and supporting National Olympic Committees and international Olympic Committees of their tangible climate actions.  Also, with the help of their Official Carbon Partner Dow, during the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympics, they have worked with industry and decision makers to adopt low carbon technologies through material selection and manufacturing that have led to sustainable changes after the games ended.

Compared to climate change’s more devastating effects, its impact on sports seem inconsequential. However, it is something that affects everyone in a noticeable way.  Sports connect people from different countries, social class, and backgrounds. Amassing millions of fans around the world, the loss of sports would be felt deeply.  But organizations like the IOC are recognizing that change is necessary, both to respond to the impacts of climate change on sporting events, and to lessen the industry’s role in contributing to this harm.

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