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Warming up: U of T researcher explores the impact of climate change on sports


In 2019, the World Championship Marathon in Doha was scheduled to be held at midnight to avoid the scorching sun. In the same year, athletes at the Rugby World Cup in Japan waded through knee-deep water to reach the field after Typhoon Hagibis dropped 240mm of water over Tokyo – the wettest storm on record in Japan.

From snowless winters to scorching summer heat, the sports world is feeling the effects of climate risks, and a large number of risks to health, business and performance are going unaddressed, says sports ecologist Madeleine OrrAssistant Professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto (KPE).

(Photo by Selena Phillips Boyle)

In her book Warming up: How climate change is changing sportsOrr shares the stories of athletes, teams and events directly impacted by climate risks, explores the impact of sport on the planet and suggests actions the sport sector can take to adapt.

writer Jelena Damjanovic He recently sat down with Orr – who will be on… Book launch at the Goldring Center for High Performance Sport on May 9 – to chat about her book, her research, and how she stays optimistic in the climate fight.


What attracted you to this field of research?

There are many ways to become a sports ecologist. Some come in [the field] Through the sports science aspect – kinesiology, physiology, training – others start in natural resource science, environmental studies, hydrology or climatology, and then find their way into sports as a subject.

My training combined the two and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to study at different colleges while I was in graduate school to learn how to read, interpret, and develop climate models, as well as how to measure the impacts of different climate risks. Such as extreme heat, humidity, or wildfires can affect the health and performance of athletes, and the business side of the sport.

How is climate change changing sports, directly and indirectly?

I spend about 200 pages of my book answering this question – but if I had to break it down into several buckets, it would be: Extreme heat affects the health and performance of athletes, and the well-being of everyone else in the sport, including coaches, referees and fans; Drought and floods create unstable and sometimes unhealthy playing surfaces in different parts of the world; Wildfires wreak havoc on air pollution across vast swaths of land even far from the flames; Winters are becoming shorter and less predictable due to climate change – and so winter sports are suffering.

It’s important to think about climate change in the context of sports because every sport depends on clean air, clean water and a safe place to play. When weather risks do arise, they can lead to cancellations, delays, damage, health issues, and, in the worst-case scenario, death of athletes.

Does sport itself contribute negatively to the environment?

Sport – particularly at elite and professional levels – is organized geographically and on the basis of inter-regional and international travel. The sports business model is based on tourism: teams and events want people to come from out of town, or to spend money at restaurants and other hospitality offerings close to the event venue. So, when a lot of people move around – teams, referees, media and fans – it creates a very large carbon footprint.

In other words, sports produce a lot of waste. Think of the number of sports products made from carbon fibre, just to name a few. They are found in hockey sticks, bicycles, rackets, boats, skates, racquets, nets, and the list goes on. It’s a great product because it’s strong and light, but it’s also non-recyclable, so once a piece of carbon fiber equipment gets even a minor crack, it becomes inoperable and in the case of bikes or boats, it needs to be retired immediately for safety. the reasons.

Another example is sports equipment. Think about all the clothes and shoes we buy to support our sports practices – most of them are made of polyester because it absorbs sweat. But they’re also made of plastic and are very difficult to recycle, even if the product you buy says “made from recycled materials.” Polyester can generally be recycled once, and then it becomes difficult to do so again as the quality of the material deteriorates. All of this means that sport produces a lot of stuff that can’t be recycled or reused, which is a huge source of waste.

How can sports organisations, managers, coaches, athletes and fans mitigate the risks associated with climate change and reduce their environmental footprint?

This is a huge question, and I spend a lot of pages on this topic in the book. The first important thing is that we have to put safety first and adopt emergency policies and protocols that keep athletes – staff, coaches, fans and volunteers – safe when they play sports in unsafe conditions such as extreme heat or wildfire smoke. The other part is adapting our facilities and schedules to avoid the worst climate risks.

Reducing your environmental footprint is often associated with reducing travel, whether that’s carpooling to practices with other kids on your team or taking public transportation to professional sporting events when you go to watch. But there are lots of other things that individuals and sporting organizations can do in terms of reuse and recycling which I discuss in the book as well.

How do you maintain your optimism?

I don’t think we can afford not to change. We just have to. I’m under no illusions that sport – especially professional and elite sport – will be the first mover in this, but this sector has a huge platform and potential to inspire not just the fans who follow, but all of its supply chains. . When sports have used this platform in the past, it has ignited significant public conversations about issues like gender equality — think Billie Jean King or the more recent work of women’s soccer teams. And racial injustice — think about the Black Lives Matter boycott of 2020 and before that Colin Kaepernick and before that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sports have a rich history of attracting attention to major debates and debates. I believe we can do it again with climate change.

Finally, how do you respond to people who tell sports activists to “stay in your own lane”?

There will always be trolls and haters. I say ignore them. George Monbiot, environment correspondent for WatchmanHe once said: “We are hypocrites. All of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions.” This resonated with me. I try to remind other athletes or activists that no one will pass the purity test on climate action: we all have a carbon footprint and we all have the ability to make some more sustainable choices, but not everyone Choices – because some are expensive and others are out of our control. So, let yourself off the hook of perfectionism, keep bringing your fears out into the world and ignore the trolls.

Read the full interview in the College of Kinesiology and Physical Education



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