Champions for Earth is a group of mostly British athletes who are speaking out about the seriousness and urgency of the environmental emergency faced by civilization. The organization draws on “sporting qualities of dreaming big, making sacrifices, pushing beyond perceived limits, and rising to the occasion” to help push for action at all levels.
In this three-part special series, GreenSportsBlog features the stories of the athletes who have taken lead roles with Champions for Earth:
In Part I, retired Team GB canoeist Etienne Stott shared his incredible evolution from a naive but ambitious youngster to Olympic champion to climate activist to Champion for Earth.
Part II featured Katie Rood, the New Zealand international footballer who plays her club football for Lewes F.C. in England’s second tier. Her grit, tenacity and insightfulness on the pitch translates well to her work for Champions for Earth.
In today’s finale, we offer the multi-layered story of the former British national team rower Dave Hampton, founder of Champions for Earth.
GreenSportsBlog: I was surprised to find out that your Champions for Earth teammate and Team GB kayaking gold medalist Etienne Stott did not start his athletic endeavors until he was 12-13, ancient compared to every other athlete I’ve interviewed. You have Etienne beaten by several years, not starting your sports career until your university days. How is that possible?
Dave Hampton: Great question, Lew. I was really not much into sport growing up. I was an OK fast bowler at cricket but nothing much else; although I walked and climbed a lot.
When I got to university at Cambridge, rowing was almost compulsory. And, lo and behold, I got hooked, and found that my inner athlete was hungry to come out.
Now in theory you can’t go from no sport to top rower in five years during your late teens and early twenties…
GSB: So, how did you do it?
Dave: Well, Lew, I was super motivated and found I had an aptitude for rowing. I didn’t make varsity — instead I rowed for Emmanuel, my college within the university…
GSB: …The British equivalent of intramurals in the U.S., right?
Dave: Yes. Then for two years after university, I became very fast. I ranked second highest on ergo scores in the whole British lightweight¹ team. Turns out that two of us who fell through the varsity cracks in 1980 both made our marks beyond Cambridge.
Richard Budgett, now Dr. Richard Budgett OBE, London 2012 Chief Medic, went from rowing for Selwyn College to winning a Gold medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics – with Sir Steve Redgrave.
I ended up making the British national team in 1982, going to the World Championships that year in the lightweight eight, one of our best finishes in years. Ended up retiring and getting married in 1984 and basically giving up the sport I loved, to focus on life after sport.
GSB: What did you do then?
Dave: Well, before 1990, my work focused on energy efficiency. I worked in R&D to maximize the heat generated per BTU of natural gas nationally.
After 1990, the year we had our first child, my focus shifted to climate change. By that time, I was heading up government programs for energy efficiency of the built environment. We were told at the time not to mention climate change in any of our work because it ‘wasn’t proven yet’.
Of course, that was bollocks: I was angry the British government wasn’t being clear about this!
GSB: Bollocks indeed!
Dave: I mean, going all the way back to the 60s, the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) buildup and the link to increasing temperatures was crystal clear. And as time went on, as I studied the issue more and its seriousness became as clear as could be, I just couldn’t stay on the sidelines on climate. Not as a dad, either.
GSB: So, what did you do?
Dave: Well, Lew after leaving government work in 1997, I joined leading sustainability consultancy ABS Consulting, where I started winning national awards for sustainability leadership. Then in 2005 I took the leap, going off on my own to launch as the Carbon Coach.
GSB: Carbon Coach…Does that have a sports connection?
Dave: Not sports per se. The approach was to target prominent, influential people, helping them to reduce their carbon footprints in the hope that that would seep to their fans. Our idea was to green the rich rather than soaking them.
Some of my more well-known clients, at least for British audiences, have been celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and Jonathon Porritt, environmental advisor to Prince Charles. These clients added to my credibility at public speaking gigs where I would both entertain and share how to inspire people to reduce their personal carbon footprints.
GSB: That sounds like an impactful business model…
Dave: It was, but after a while I noticed I was talking more than doing. Between 2005-2010 I lost confidence that it was working fast enough.
It turns out I was suffering from what is now called climate anxiety…and had been diagnosed with depression in 2003. I was gutted and confused about the inability of humans to stop behaviors that were killing their own kids. I did a great deal of personal work too and that slowly helped pull me back up.
GSB: I’ve heard more and more stories of climate anxiety in recent months, especially with the coronavirus pandemic and the growing concerns about systemic racism and oppression adding to the stress levels. So how did you, in the midst of your personal struggles, reconnect with sports?
Dave: Passion for sport and fair play was still inside me somewhere, looking to come out. London 2012 helped make that happen.
Everyone thought it would be a complete disaster but that turned out to not be the case at all. It was a huge boost to the national mood and mine as well. Team GB punched way above its weight in the medal count. I went to two days of the rowing over at Dorney Lake and was there to see the UK women’s team win our first ever gold medals in rowing.
This really reignited the fire in my belly and switched on the “winning is possible” switch in my brain.
Of course, back in the real world, it seemed that only a handful of people believed that we could all still ‘win’ on climate despite it being very late in the game. But slowly more and more influential people were speaking out.
GSB: Was this just a feeling or is there some data behind that statement?
Dave: More anecdotal than not but I should tell you that, starting a bit before London 2012, I’ve hosted a Monday night radio program, focused on green issues, on Marlow FM, Marlow being the town in which I live. People have gotten fired up over the years and that is definitely a good thing.
GSB: So, how did this renewed fire in your belly lead you to co-found Champions for Earth?
Dave: Well, now let’s fast forward to 2017.
I saw a LinkedIn ad for a free Athlete Transition course for recent Olympians run by Lane4, a successful company led by British Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Adrian Moorhouse. I was neither recent nor an Olympian, but they welcomed me anyway. It was not about perfecting your CV or how to get a job. Rather it was about belief, values, mindset and being true to ourselves.
In the first check-in, I really opened up and within 10 minutes, I thought ‘oh, I’ve blown this by being too open’ and may as well go home. But at lunch, London 2012 canoeing gold medalist Etienne Stott, came over and surprised me saying how much my words had resonated. We fast became friends.
At the time, I didn’t think he would be up for something like Champions for Earth. I mean I knew he was passionate; he was vegan and wanted to change the world, but I didn’t dare imagine he would want to take on a leadership role with us.
GSB: Wait, did Champions for Earth already exist?
Dave: Conceptually, yes.
I had conceived Champions for Earth as a group of athletes I knew speaking out on climate change… my initial vision was simply that sporting legends would, when interviewed on this BBC Sports show or that Sky Sports show, insert a simple comment: that they were concerned about climate change. Just to mention it would be enough to end the media taboo. So yes it was a firm concept but it hadn’t launched.
Of course, once Etienne started working with me, I knew he would become a force behind the organization and so we are co-founders.
Champions for Earth’s mission statement has evolved to this: assembling a team of athletes using their collective voice to call for action and supporting others in the struggle for climate and ecological justice.
GSB: So, what did you guys do first out of the gate?
Dave: Well that goes back to the radio program. I had interviewed a bunch of sporting legends on the show over the years, including good friend Pauline Peel, who was the first to row in an Olympics event for women for Great Britain at the Montreal 1976 Games. She was on the program about three years ago and spoke out boldly against fracking. After the show we talked about how great it would be to get several Olympians to sign a letter to ban fracking, and we wrote one that ultimately went into the Financial Times in October 2018.
Etienne, Pauline and I signed it, but it was difficult at that time to get others to do so.
GSB: Why do you think that was the case?
Dave: Well, some were nervous it might damage prospects with employers. I think climate was still perceived to be political. But the change since then has been remarkable. That was pre-Greta, after all.
Our letter, which was a cold submission by the way, did very well; according to the FT it was their most downloaded letter of the week. So, that put us on the map.
GSB: And that letter led to plant-based footballer and last week’s interviewee Katie Rood joining Champions for Earth…
Dave: It helped. Katie has brought tremendous energy and drive to us. And she brought other athletes — Etienne and I brought our mates as well — to sign our next letter that ended up running in The Guardian in August 2019 in support of the Greta Thunberg-led school strike for climate the following month.
GSB: How many signed?
Dave: We had 19 signatories in the end with another four or five sporting legends tweeting about it. Lizzy Yarnold, the skeleton gold medalist, was great about pushing it out on social. And then there were about 20 others who were thisclose to signing but didn’t do so.
GSB: Still, jumping from three to 19 signatures is great progress.
Dave: Definitely! And there’s art, there’s nuance to this, right? I mean if we’re asking athletes to sign a letter demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister, that will be a tall hill to climb. On the other hand, if the letter just says that solar power is a good thing, say, we’ll get a whole load of signatures. So, the key is finding the sweet spot.
GSB: What else is Champions for Earth doing beyond the letters?
Dave: Well, the social media accounts are active, and each year we award Champion for Earth to the athlete who has done the most to publicize the urgency of climate and environmental action. We’ve awarded three to date.
First was David Katoatau, the weightlifter from Pacific island nation of Kiribati, who famously danced at the Rio 2016 Olympics to bring attention to the impact climate change is having and will have on his home.
Then in 2018 we, controversially to some, named Greta Thunberg as our Champion for Earth…
GSB: What sport does she play? Seriously, Greta’s not an athlete, is she?
Dave: And therein lies the controversy. We just felt she was a bigger Champion for Earth than the rest of the sports world — and the whole world for that matter — put together.
GSB: Makes sense. Who won it last year?
Dave: Two time Olympic rowing champion and national treasure Helen Glover. She earned the award for speaking out boldly about the climate emergency, locally and globally, with husband and TV presenter Steve Backshall.
GSB: So, what’s next for Champions for Earth?
Dave: Well now we have our core leadership team in place, with Katie, Etienne and now the rower Melissa Wilson joining us. And then there are the 15 other signatories to the 2019 letter to The Guardian.
Our goal is to progressively take Champions for Earth to the next level.
We are building relationships with athlete friends who may come on board, depending on how the next project or letter is pitched.
GSB: Now, while Katie Rood is from New Zealand, the rest of Champions for Earth athletes are from Great Britain. What are your plans for international expansion?
Dave: We also have, thanks to Katie, Erin Nayler another New Zealand footballer, on our roster.
And, while the aspiration was always to be international, it had to start with the UK.
Aside from the fact that the relationships we have are mostly with British athletes, it must be said that it was Britain that got us into the mess we’re in with colonialism and the industrial revolution, so it should be Britain that leads the way out.
GSB: Ah, we in the U.S. need to be right there with you! Final question: What would success look like for Champions for Earth?
Dave: Success will look like this: Bold conversations about impending climate collapse will be commonplace among sporting legends and their followers, around the world, and across all sports.
And we will work to go from 19 signatories on our 2019 letter to 100 on our next one.
¹ Maximum weight for men’s lightweight crew members is 72.5 kg or 159.8 lbs
Photo at top: Dave Hampton, the fourth rower from the right, in the 1982 World Championships at Lucern, Switzerland (Photo credit: Dave Hampton)