Is sport ready to deal with climate change?

The question was asked with sharpness and precision by Professor Madeleine Orr, at Play the Game 2024 in Trondheim at the beginning of February. Madeleine Orr, who is a Ph.D. and researcher at the University of Toronto, has in the past decade dealt extensively with the connection between sport, nature and climate change. And her conclusions are definitely not uplifting – quite the opposite.

Sports ecology – the interaction between nature and sport

The charismatic researcher is also one of the initiators of the international research group “The Sport Ecology Group”, which aims to collect new knowledge about sports ecology and disseminate facts, exchange knowledge and experience between the sports sector and researchers, create public awareness of and interest in sports ecology topics as well as award scholarships to young researchers with sports ecology as a research field. It was also “The Sport Ecology Group” which in autumn 2022 – in collaboration with the “United Nations Environment Programme” – published the report: “Sports for Nature: Setting a Baseline”. The report was the first attempt to describe the current challenges in the relationship between sport and nature. This is done through knowledge, interviews and statements from more than 100 international sports organizations and 30 different sports.

Climate change has serious consequences for outdoor sports

The primary reasons of global climate change, pollution and loss of biodiversity are the overuse of natural resources and destructive production patterns. Today there is an enormous need to change these conditions, both globally, nationally and locally – in all sectors all over the globe. To a large extent, this also applies to sport, which occupies a very large part of many people’s everyday life. Sport is both deeply dependent on and closely connected to nature, not least outdoor sports such as football, rugby, cricket, golf and skiing. There are today more than 6,000 ski areas in Europe, North America and Asia, which are used annually by more than 400 million people. This will far from be the case in 5, 10 or 15 years, if we do not radically change our consumption habits and lifestyle. The report also indicates proposals and recommendations for concrete actions that sports organizations – alone or in collaboration with organizers of sports events, commercial partners and fans – can implement concrete activities and actions for the benefit and enjoyment of both nature and sport.

Many cancellations of World Cups in alpine skiing

Recent years’ data and analyzes from research institutions – in Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Canada and the United States – have clearly shown that there is a great need for radical changes if winter sports such as alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and biathlon are to “survive”, both for top athletes and everyone else who finds joy and enjoyment of winter sports. Global warming has meant that in 25 years more than half of former Winter Olympic host cities will not be able to hold outdoor skiing competitions. Climate change has also meant that several World Cups in alpine skiing this winter were canceled or postponed due to excessively high temperatures, too little and too “soft” snow.

Flooding on Danish football and golf courses lurks on the horizon

A few light-minded people might be tempted to believe that climate change “only” concerns sports in countries with cold, snow or high temperatures. However, that would be a very naive attitude. Climate change will certainly also affect Danish sports in the coming years. It is a fact that the amount of precipitation in Denmark is constantly increasing. It is therefore also expected that the weather will become more extreme with wetter winters and summers with heavier showers, which can cause flooding. It will certainly also have consequences of canceled football matches and limited access for golfers due to closed courses.

Need for radical action … now!

I look forward to reading Madeleine Orr’s upcoming book: “Warning Up – How Climate Change is Changing Sport” (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2024), which will be published in a few months. The book describes how climate change is already affecting sporting events all over the world; Forest fires during the Australian Open and baseball games in California, cancellations of the World Cup in winter sports in the Alps, lots of golf courses sinking into the sea and much more. The biggest “victims” of climate change are athletes, but millions of people are also completely financially dependent on the giga-industry that global sports has developed into. Last but not least, Madeleine Orr also makes a number of recommendations for how sports organizations, nations, host cities, commercial partners, politicians and spectators can – and should – act actively to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change.

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