Why sports stars are not friends of Sustainability

I really love watching sports. I love it primarily because of my fascination with what the human body is physically capable of. Athletes producing incredible performances inspire me to be more active myself. But unfortunately, beyond the human performance element and the spirit of sportsmanship (which is often absent today); most of the rest of the elements that make up professional sport don’t match up with my values. Huge amounts of money from corporate (fossil fuelled) sponsorship, sports washing from brutal regimes, rampant cheating etc. Even competition itself as it exists now is to me an unsustainable and deeply right wing concept. The idea that the elite of a sport take all the money, plaudits and fame while the vast majority get crumbs is just wrong. Professional sport can’t work in future unless numerous issues are addressed.

More sports in parks and less in stadiums

Whenever I see star athletes being interviewed, I always imagine them saying something like “yes, we lost this game, but there are more important things, like having a liveable future on this planet”; but it never happens. Why not?

The reason is simple. Professional sports are inextricably linked with capitalism, fossil fuels and excess consumption. So while you might occasionally see an athlete talk about climate change, they never achieve anything. They rely on corporate sponsors for their income in some form; and they wouldn’t appreciate it if their athletes throw capitalism under the bus. Chloe Kim recently posted on Instagram about declining natural snow; of course as part of a paid promotion with Nike. Her next post was a collaboration with Toyota showing a fossil SUV.

One aspect that’s particularly interesting is the fact that you almost never see big money sponsors from the green economy. Advertising and sponsorship is almost exclusively the domain of polluting industries. When was the last time you saw an advert for a cycling company in the mainstream media for example? I can think of one instance, and that was Vanmoof, who aren’t your typical bike brand. And even that was only a one-off. The only long term sponsorship I can think of is the deal Mercedes Formula E team has with Vestas (wind turbine manufacturer). Aside from Tesla, who choose not to advertise for other reasons; Vestas are among the only sustainability focused companies that are big enough to have the money to spare. This is at least admirable in the current economic system, but in order to have a sustainable future, we have no choice but to get big money out of sport.

Watch any sport and you’ll see advertising for every fossil fuel company, car manufacturer, drinks company (and their plastic bottles), and representation from pretty much every industry that’s doing harm to our planet and exacerbating inequalities around the world. Not only that, but specifically in minority sports, individual sponsorship of athletes is what keeps them going, which goes back to the situation Chloe Kim and many others are in. Don’t get me wrong though; there is no shortage of athletes who will take the fossil fuelled money and happily buy themselves a big house and several sports cars without a second thought (swimmer Adam Peaty comes to mind). Selfishness and inequality has become so accepted in society that no one gets held to account, and the people who do bring it up are the ones who face pushback. “How dare you criticise their 3 car garage? They earned it”, they’ll say.

But even for those people who do deeply care, they are forced to take the money in many cases, as they can’t continue to compete without it. If you’re living as a low level professional athlete, do you really want to go back to that meaningless, miserable desk job you hate that doesn’t contribute anything to society? Of course you don’t. So take the fossil fuel money and shut up.

This is why the only people you hear from about climate change are those who are either sponsored by companies who are greenwashing at master level, successful (and therefore rich) athletes later in their careers, or athletes from wealthy backgrounds who don’t require sponsorship. There was a Team GB sailor at Tokyo 2020 who was talking about the climate crisis in a TV interview, which I found surprising. But in general, people who get into sailing are often from well-off backgrounds, so that would make sense; although I don’t know for sure.

Another issue is that athletes are often very single-minded individuals. To be the best in the world requires them to not be well-rounded people. They live their sport all day, every day in many cases. Ask them about politics or climate change and they’ll most likely either draw a blank or say something incoherent and stupid.

Professional sport needs to be pared back to the bare essentials if it is to survive beyond the next few years. It has to be primarily about fun and friendly competition, and not at all about money. It has to reduce the number of events, travel on the ground wherever possible, slash consumption and athletes have to act like real role models. People often talk about athletes being role models today, which I find ridiculous in most cases. There are definitely the odd one or two true role model athletes out there; but they’re completely overshadowed by the vast majority who inspire the public to get rich and consume like there’s no tomorrow more than anything else.

Fitness and fun over competition and money

Many sports will cease to exist when the transition to a sustainable world takes place. Sports that are polluting, that aren’t accessible to everyone (elitist) or don’t offer any health benefit to society will need to go. Motorsport will be chief amongst them. The rest will focus more on the grassroots and less on the big stage. There will be a huge shift of focus towards health and leisure over competition and being the best. This would effectively flip our current status quo where the unfit, sedentary, obese general public watch elite athletes compete and set records for human performance.

It is truly absurd that at the same time, we are the unhealthiest we’ve ever been as a global population; while our athletes are the best and healthiest they’ve ever been. Even if you ignore pro sport’s sustainability problem and almost total reliance on capitalism; this change is desperately needed anyway. I can’t wait to see it happen.