Fossil fuel partnerships are undermining the health of sport, athletes say

Fossil fuel partnerships are undermining the health of sport, athletes say

US discus thrower Sam Mattis says decisions to take oil and gas money are “penny wise and dollar dumb”

A group of Olympic athletes has called on sports federations and clubs to dump fossil fuel partnerships and act as an “alarm bell” for the rest of society when it comes to the climate crisis.

Athletes taking part in the upcoming Paris 2024 Olympic Games are facing several climate-related health risks because of prolonged and intense periods of heat and humidity. 

The Rings of Fire II report, unveiled by BASIS, FrontRunners and the University of Portsmouth earlier this week, states that, with the Games taking place at the height of summer, where 40℃ temperatures are possible, competitors are facing potentially dangerous consequences while the quality of sport may be compromised.

In the 100 years since Paris last hosted the Olympics in 1924, the temperature has increased by 1.8℃ on average, largely as a result of our reliance on fossil fuels accelerating climate change.

While sport is facing increasingly difficult circumstances as a result of climate change, the report highlights the fact that fossil fuel investment in sport appears to be more high profile and pervasive than ever before.

‘Penny wise, dollar dumb’

Sam Mattis, a discus athlete representing the USA and a World Athletics Champion for a Better World ambassador, said decisions made by sports organisations to take fossil fuel money are “penny wise and dollar dumb”.

“Sure, you can make a little more money short-term working with fossil fuel companies, but in the long-term you’re undermining the health of your sport and your ability to make money,” Mattis said. 

“For sports teams and leagues who have committed to being net zero, or have any sort of climate goal, it’s clearly incredibly hypocritical to partner with these companies.”

Mattis added that, in his opinion, the decision to partner with oil and gas giants was not down to a lack of understanding about the link between their activities and the consequences of climate change, but rather an unwillingness on the part of sports properties to “shift their models” and improve their understanding of how to run profitably without them.

Dangerous

An abundantly clear picture was painted by the report and a subsequent briefing with the press, in which Mattis, Jamie Farndale (Scottish rugby 7s player), Pragnya Mohan (Indian triathlete) and Kaitlyn Trudeau (climate scientist) unpacked some of the risks athletes face.

Mohan, the highest ranking triathlete in the history of her nation, is forced to train in Europe between April and October as the heat in India can result in dehydration and compromised decision-making, impacting performance.

To reach maximum exposure for spectators, Mohan said that many event organisers host races in the afternoon despite conditions being worse for athletes.

“I have raced in events where the temperature was 40℃-plus and humidity was 80%-plus,” she explained. “We were made to race in these conditions and recovery took forever for the athletes. We had people passing out with extreme heat stroke. We didn’t have any fatalities, but it was extremely dangerous for athletes to race in those conditions.”

Farndale, who participated in a heat chamber experiment to demonstrate the impact extreme heat can have on athlete health and performance, said playing in conditions like this affects performance, hinders recovery and even results in more heated training sessions as the heat makes teammates more irritable and aggressive.

“We play six games over three days and you just can’t cool down in between,” he added. “We’re doing everything we can, but your core temperature just doesn’t drop. You feel sick, you’re sweating.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle of your career and it should be the most enjoyable experience of your life, but you’re playing in conditions where you’re just trying to get through the match.”

Radical reassessment

Farndale, who is also a sustainability ambassador for Scottish Rugby, said that sport needed to “double down” on the transition away from fossil fuels for its own survival. In his own sport, a report showcasing the consequences for rugby of a 2℃ world was published earlier this month, demonstrating wide-ranging impacts, from the destruction of infrastructure, to the health of athletes and even the viability of hosting tournaments in particular nations, including rugby heartlands like South Africa and important emerging markets like the US.

And while the Rings of Fire II report acknowledges that the fossil fuel sponsorship “list is lengthy” and grows “year-by-year”, its authors stress that the industry needs to undertake a “radical reassessment” of its relationship with fossil fuel companies.

“The main cause of climate change is clear,” the report states, “emissions from fossil fuels. Sport needs to re-examine its relationship with fossil fuel companies. Sponsorship may bring in much-needed finance, but the long-term cost of such partnerships must be reassessed.”

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