Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Climate Change and Sports: Fault on Both Sides

In a first-person account, Tatyana McFadden — the best female wheelchair racer of all time — explains the vulnerabilities sportspersons face due to global warming and pandemics and the carbon burden of sports on the planet
April 6, 2022
Climate Change

US Paralympic champion of track and field Tatyana McFadden is considered the fastest woman in the world. She is a six-time US Paralympian and 20-time Paralympic medallist and has 23 World Major Marathons and five world records in track and field to her credit. Born with spina bifida and spent the first years of her life in an orphanage in Russia without basic services like a wheelchair, she was adopted by and raised in Maryland, USA. Unperturbed by all hardships that she faced in her life, she is disturbed by Earth’s climate change.

“I lived first-hand a life without adequate food and clean water, sometimes without heat or electricity, things that I don’t take for granted now. Fortunately, I was adopted at the age of six by a wonderful American family and I don’t have to live like this anymore. But with climate change, a lot of people living in developing countries are experiencing this,” she said in an interview on the occasion of the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace.

The Paralympian says, she has spoken about the struggle with her fellow Paralympic athletes coming from countries particularly affected by climate change.

“There’s no question that climate change is a major worldwide challenge that really impacts all people. But in reality, it disproportionately impacts the disabled population,” she explains.

Face to Face with Global Warming

Athletes are feeling the heat raise up during their events. An example was Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games, which saw record-breaking heat and humidity making worldwide headlines and posing a danger for participants.

“This is directly related to hydration. As athletes, we need to stay very hydrated. Having a disability, being paralysed from the waist down causes circulation issues, and for us, hydration is already a very hard thing. You could get a heat stroke and die because you’re not getting enough,” she explains.

Nutrition is another big factor for competitors, which, can be a challenge for some athletes in certain countries. McFadden learned that during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, US advocates had to deliver food, healthcare and equipment to South African Paralympic athletes suffering from vulnerable conditions.

“This is a really big [challenge] that we are facing, not only due to COVID but with the climate crisis. This hit me personally because as an elite athlete, hydration and food are so important not only for performance but also for health in general and to see my own Paralympic athletes not having that is very difficult. That’s why we need to be part of this discussion because those were my competitors. Many couldn’t go to Tokyo, for example, because they were living in situations like these,” she highlights.

From People to Property, Everything at Risk

According to a recent policy brief from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the entire sports sector is being impacted by the consequences of rising temperatures, heavier rainfalls and a rise in incidences of extreme weather events.

The report cites a recent study that showed that in a warming world, half of the former winter Olympic host cities will likely be unable to sponsor winter games by 2050 due to a lack of snow and ice.

In 2018, the elevated temperatures made the US Open tennis tournament organisers offer a “heat-break” to athletes. During the 2020 Australian Open, poor air quality due to wildfires forced some tennis players to withdraw from the tournament.

By 2050, almost one-fourth of England football league team’s stadiums, 23 out of 92 precisely, are projected to be partially or totally flooded every year.

While the said examples only point out the burden on high-profile sporting events, DESA suggests, that the impact on smaller, more local events is possibly far greater. From youth leagues to collegiate teams, millions of athletes have already confronted some climate disruptions, which will only magnify with time.

“This is personal to me. We want to make a change and how athletes like myself can do that? One, we have to talk about it. Second, to work with sponsors. They have such a huge external audience so it’s our job to talk to them about the importance of carbon footprint and the significance of zero carbon emissions…We also need to praise sponsors that are doing the work and making the big changes,” Tatyana McFadden emphasises.

The Burden of Sporting Events

Sporting events also contribute to global warming. According to a Rapid Transition Alliance’s report, the global sports sector contributes the same level of emissions as a medium-sized country through their carbon footprint coming from transportation, constructions, sporting venues and the supply chains for sport-related equipment.

It has been estimated that the 2016 Rio Olympics released 3.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, while the 2018 Russia World Cup released 2.16 million tonnes.

While we have some figures, none of these assessments could estimate the real impact of climate change. Most of the studies still do not include the burden of building new stadiums, the water and energy consumed to support events, and the food, plastic and other waste produced during these events.

Measures are now being taken to reduce the carbon footprint of sporting events. For instance, the International Olympic Committee, by 2030, aims to move beyond carbon neutrality and make the game’s carbon negative.

Athletes like Mcfadden have also started to raise their voices on the issue, to encourage people in power, on the ground and those cheering for them. In 2021, for the COP26 climate change summit, more than 50 global Olympians and Paralympians from Tokyo 2020 came together to advocate for ambitious actions from world leaders during the summit.

A study found that fans are receptive to environmental initiatives, partaking in the efforts to reduce environmental footprints not only when attending sports events, but also in their everyday behaviours and as advocates within their local communities.

Not just these players, but also bodies like DESA agree. They believe that sports can play an important role in educating and raising awareness about global warming and other environmental issues, such as promoting a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.

Focused environmental sustainability campaigns, thus, can be crucial. Through these campaigns, athletes and teams, using their elevated social status, can serve as role models to their supporters to educate society on climate change, motivating them to change their lifestyles for the benefit of the planet.

Tatyana McFadden was also part of the launch of WeThe15 campaign during the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic games that aimed at bringing to notice the 15 per cent of people worldwide with a disability and fighting barriers and discrimination.

“I see my future hopefully making a change and helping to increase the number of people with disabilities taking a well-deserved seat at the table, making sure that we are part of the conversation of climate change and doing our part to promote sustainability in the world,” the US paralympic champion of track and field hopes, while she prepares for Paris 2024, where the Olympic Committee is advancing considerably to make it a sustainable event.