Sports are playing an important role at the UN Climate Change Conference, aka COP21, which started Monday and runs until December 11 in Paris. The highlight will be the Sustainable Innovation in Sport symposium on December 7, which will certainly focus on the power of sport to change macro behaviors. Readers of GreenSportsBlog certainly are aware of the ways teams, venues, universities, non-profits and corporations have worked to “green the games.” One key constituency in the sports world has largely been absent from our pages–athletes. And, while we have discussed the reasons for a relative lack of eco-athletes (green is complicated, involves science, can be political, etc.) there are athletes who are doing the great green things, inspiring fans along the way. Here are the stories of four such Eco-Athlete All Stars.
At the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Chicago this summer, I asked Andrew Ference, captain of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League, and a pioneering Eco-Athlete, about the relative lack of athletes who’ve taken on climate change/”green” as a cause. Ference said climate change is more difficult terrain than, say, cancer, because “if an athlete gets involved with cancer research, he/she can say this research is solving a problem–there’s a tangible goal. Climate change? It’s a much more complicated problem–a set of problems, really–and thus has many more complex potential solutions.” While there aren’t as many athletes embracing environmental issues as there are involved with cancer or other worthy causes, it doesn’t mean there are, aside from Ference, none. In fact, research revealed more Eco-Athletes than expected. Today, we serve up our initial quartet of green sports stars–we’ll follow up with an Eco-Athletes II down the road.
GRETCHEN BLEILER, SNOWBOARDER, ECO-PRENEUR (USA)
Gretchen Bleiler became famous by winning an Olympic Silver medal in snowboarding at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, 4 Winter X Games Gold Medals, an ESPY award and induction to the Action Sports Hall of Fame. She is using that fame to cement her legacy through consistent, substantive work as an environmental activist and climate change fighter. Bleiler serves on the board of Protect Our Winters (POW), whose mission is to mobilize the snow sports community to lead the climate change fight among the broader public via high-profile advocacy and educational initiatives. One such initiative is Hot Planet, Cool Athletes, in which Bleiler, along with other POW athletes, gives school assemblies that have reached over 45,000 students since 2011. The presentations combine first-hand reports of how climate change/extreme weather affects snowboarding and other winter sports, along with the latest in climate science. She’s also the co- founder of ALEX (Always Live EXtraordinarily), a company whose signature product is an open-from-the-middle, and thus easy-to-clean water bottle.
Bleiler will be a featured speaker at the Sustainable Innovation in Sport symposium on December 7 as part of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris.
ANDREW FERENCE, EDMONTON OILERS DEFENSEMAN/CAPTAIN, CLIMATE CHANGE FIGHTER (CANADA)
In a GreenSportsBlog interview this August, we anointed Andrew Ference as “the active North American team sports athlete most associated with fighting climate change.” The Edmonton Oilers captain was raised by parents who grew up on a farm in Western Canada and instilled in him an appreciation of and curiosity about the outdoors. Early in Ference’s National Hockey League (NHL) career with the Calgary Flames, he met David Suzuki, a TV personality and scientist in Canada who challenged him to get involved with the climate change issue. Ference did, asking questions, learning, and finally speaking out and engaging other players on the topic. After he was traded to the Boston Bruins (winning a Stanley Cup while there), Ference took advantage of being in a city that is a leading light of green innovation by connecting with a number of cleantech startups. And, even though Ference was taken out of Boston in a trade to Edmonton, you couldn’t take Boston (or more accurately, Cambridge) out of Ference–he is taking classes remotely via in the Harvard Extension School Certificate program for Corporate Sustainability and Innovation.
Andrew Ference, riding his bicycle while toting the Stanley Cup after winning it as a member of the Boston Bruins in 2011. Currently with the Edmonton Oilers, Ference maintains his ties with the Boston area by taking classes remotely at Harvard in Corporate Sustainability and Innovation. (Photo credit: Hockey Hall of Fame)
Once his playing career ends, you will likely find Ference working in the cleantech world, bringing the same leadership, passion and intelligence to sustainable businesses that he currently brings to the ice.
MATTHIEU FLAMINI, ARSENAL MIDFIELDER, GREEN BUSINESS PIONEER (FRANCE)
Mathieu Flamini, at 31, is likely nearer to the end of what has been a stellar world class soccer/football career than at the beginning. Now in his second stint at Arsenal, the former French national team member also has played for AC Milan and Marseille. He’s also made a ton of money. That might be enough for most folks.
Not for Flamini, not even close.
He co-founded GF Biochemicals, an alternative energy company that produces levulinic acid (LA), a clean solvent sourced from biomass that can replace all manner of petroleum-based products, including fuel, while he was playing with AC Milan in 2008. And no one knew about it–not his family, his friends nor his teammates–until now.
Flamini shared his incredible story in a must-read November interview in The Sun: “When I moved to Milan in 2008 I met Pasquale Granata [an Economics grad student], who became a close friend and we always had in mind to do something together. I was always close to nature and concerned about environmental issues, climate change and global warming. He was on the same wavelength. We were looking how we could make a contribution.”
What a contribution they are in position to make: Help wean the world off of fossil fuels, employ people in economically challenged Italy and, in the process capitalize on a what is projected to be a $20 billion emerging market. GF Biochemicals asserts it is the “only company to produce LA at commercial scale directly from biomass [mostly wood and corn waste].” Flamini’s goal for GF Biochemicals is more ambitious than even that of The Gunners winning the Premier League title–per The Sun interview–“Produce LA, [a product with the] potential to replace petrol in all its forms…on an industrial scale, meaning cheaply and cost-effectively.”
My vision, offered free of charge to Flamini/GF Biochemicals, is also ambitious: Power The Emirates, Arsenal’s home stadium in North London, with 100% cleanly sourced (#Go100Percent) electricity generated from GF Biochemicals’ levulinic acid.
LEWIS PUGH, LONG DISTANCE SWIMMER, UNEP PATRON OF THE OCEANS (UK)
Pioneering long-distance swimmer. Ocean advocate. Maritime lawyer. Lewis Pugh is all that and more. Pugh is often called the “Sir Edmund Hillary of swimming”, a comparison doesn’t seem hyperbolic when one takes a look at his long-distance swim résumé:
- 2007: 1st to swim across the North Pole to highlight melting Arctic sea ice.
- 2010: Swam across a glacial lake on Mount Everest to draw attention to the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas, and the impact the reduced water supply will have on world peace.
- 2013: Inducted into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame
- 2014: 1st to swim all 7 seas (Mediterranean, Adriatic, Aegean, Black, Red, Arabian, North) to campaign for the establishment of Marine Protected Areas.
- 2015: Set records for the southernmost swims in history through 5 Swims in and around Antarctica to gain global support for the Antarctic’s Ross Sea to become a Marine Protected Area.
Lewis Pugh swims around an iceberg during one of his “5 Swims” in Antarctica. (Photo credit: Twitter.com/Lewis Pugh)
Powerful motivational speeches to corporations, NGOs, schools and others help to broaden his message. In fact, Pugh will, like Gretchen Bleiler, speak at the Paris Sustainable Innovation in Sport symposium. When he does, he will not tell attendees what to do; rather he will, per President Bill Clinton “show us what can be done.”
Lewis Pugh, marathon swimmer on dry land, giving a speech on the need to fight climate change and to protect our marine environments. (Photo credit: Lewis Pugh)