Climate change is shrinking sport so it's time for a new game plan

New book reveals how floods, droughts and heatwaves are affecting top competitions, but adaptation is possible

A closed slope of artificial snow below Zugspitze mountain, near Ehrwald in Austria. Getty Images
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From flooded football grounds to barren Alpine ski slopes, the link between climate change and sport is becoming ever more visible.

It is partly why organisers of the Paris Olympics are keen to stress their green credentials by fitting solar panels, repurposing old venues and cleaning up the Seine river.

But one ecologist and author who has spent years discussing the climate threat with athletes and those around them believes sport needs a more radical rethink for an eco-conscious age.

Madeleine Orr said her wishlist of changes – such as live-hologrammed fixtures, a smaller Olympics and a more flexible attitude from fans – was too much for some sports executives, who said it asked for things beyond their control.

But she says athletes and fans can encourage their clubs to make sport “more fun, less pressured”, more health-conscious and better suited to its environment.

Sport is a “nice to have” but “if our contributions in this area can’t be minimised then we might have to make bigger sacrifices elsewhere,” she told The National. “I don’t think we want to do that. So let’s find ways.”

Climate change affecting sport – in pictures

Dr Orr’s new book, Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sports, shows how floods, droughts, heatwaves, air pollution, wildfires, typhoons and melting glaciers are all taking their toll.

The Canadian academic was on a gap year job at a French ski resort when she realised a lack of snow was causing accidents and injuries (including to herself) and hurting the local economy.

Having also witnessed waste, pollution and illness while working at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she has since set about researching how sport is dealing with climate threats.

She found sailing clubs disappearing into the sea and Alpine ski clubs reliant on artificial snow. Drought in India left cricket pitches at the back of the queue for water. Australian Open tennis was postponed due to wildfires. Baseball grounds have been flooded and beach volleyball courts lost. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics (actually in 2021) were the “hottest ever”.

Roads were emptied in Delhi to spare runners from pollution. Cyclists were accompanied by a rider with an air quality monitor. Surfing bosses have planted 360,000 trees to improve the sport's coastal habitat. A Donald Trump-owned golf course applied for a sea wall in Ireland. (‘Building the wall’ was no easier there.)

In an extreme case, American football player Jordan McNair died of heatstroke during training in 2018. His father Marty is quoted in the book saying that “nobody ever told us” about the risks.

There are threats even in mild climates. Grassroots cricket officials in England say it is becoming ever harder to maintain pitches in hot and dry conditions.

And insurer Zurich warned last year that 39 of the 92 grounds in England’s top four men’s football leagues could face multiple climate hazards by 2050, such as extreme rainfall and flooding.

Dr Orr’s conclusion is that sport needs to show a bit more flexibility when it comes to rules and timings across the board. The pragmatism that accommodated the 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar during the winter, for example, could become the norm not an exception.

Having helped design air quality training for coaches in Canada, she would also like to see more awareness from parents, trainers and athletes on “how we take care of people in harsh conditions”.

“I’m not saying every game needs to be shut and cancelled – I’m saying have a heat policy, have some extra sports drink on the side of the pitch, be ready to add a heat break in,” she said.

“The parents aren’t going to like it, but your kid, your 15-year-old, doesn’t actually need to play a perfect 45-minute-45-minute football game. It can be split up with a couple of extra breaks and it’s not going to hurt anybody but it will potentially save lives.”

These are examples of how sport can adapt to global warming. Then there is the question of how it reduces its contribution to it (“mitigation” in climate jargon).

Australia’s Test captain Pat Cummins, founder of the Cricket for Climate Foundation, is among the pros who have banged the drum for sport to show more leadership – leading to him winning Athlete of the Year in the 2023 BBC Green Sport Awards, and being labelled a “woke far-left catastrophist clown” in other quarters.

Activism from athletes comes amid a “big shift in who has power in sport”, says Dr Orr, with sportsmen and women leading the way in 2020’s “take the knee” anti-racism protests.

While her experience is that owners “don’t love it” when athletes speak out, she believes they can be persuaded to cut ties with airlines and fossil fuel giants like they once did with tobacco sponsorship.

At local level, she would like to see more car pooling, electric team buses and second-hand sports shops, and a mentality that a sports ground is part of a common environment to be protected.

Venues should also be used as shelters or clinics when needed, like when New Orleans' Superdome became a refuge after Hurricane Katrina.

In elite sport, Dr Orr believes fans may have to accept travelling less frequently to follow their team, particularly avoiding flights, and turning to their TVs and novel ways of broadcasting.

“We are minutes away from the broadcasters developing the technology to have holograms on the pitch, and people watching at their home field a live-hologrammed game from another pitch in another country,” she said.

“There is so much room for us to create fan zones in local communities for the local teams, and for the fans to congregate and have that party without necessarily having to fly around the world to have the party.

“I’m not trying to say we’re going to give up all fandom. I’m just saying it’s going to look a little different.”

Her vision of the Olympics is one with, say, 8,000 fans in the stadium instead of 60,000, where athletes can have their friends and families in the crowd but most tickets go to locals.

Allowing smaller venues would mean “smaller towns and cities are on the map”, she says, at a time when climate change is shrinking the pool of Winter Olympic venues and perhaps summer ones, too.

“It’ll be fun, and the rest of us can watch from home – and most of the world does. No one’s ever blinked at the fact that poor people can’t travel to the Olympics,” she said.

“It’s been a global event on TV for most of the world. It’s only a select few that actually are able to make that travel and all I’m saying is let’s just reduce that a little bit further.”

'Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport', by Madeleine Orr, is available now in hardback (Bloomsbury Sigma, £20), audio and eBook.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:00 PM