Special Series

Champions For Earth: Etienne Stott, Gold Medal Winning Kayaker, Sticks His Neck Out for the Climate

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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 three athletes who have taken lead roles with Champions for Earth:

  • Founder and former rower Dave Hampton
  • Katie Rood, New Zealand international footballer who currently plays her club football for Lewes F.C. in England 

In today’s part I, retired Team GB canoeist Etienne Stott shares his incredible evolution from a naive but ambitious youngster to Olympic champion to climate activist to Champion for Earth.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Etienne, your story of standing up for your beliefs on climate change is amazing. Before we get to that, let’s start with the sports side. How did you get into kayaking?

Etienne Stott: Well, Lew, it all started because I wanted to become a fighter pilot when I grew up…

 

GSB: …How does fighter pilot turn into kayaking?

Etienne: You see, I was about 10, 11 years old and I loved the idea of being a fighter pilot. So then when I was 12, I joined the Air Cadets, kind of a junior RAF. It was so awful, I really hated it.

So that was that.

Looked for something else. Sports made sense.

I had tried rugby, field hockey and football. Boy, did I hate rugby!

But, during this time I had found kayaking through the Scouts. I loved it and found my way into the competitive discipline of slalom. This linked up with my capacity for hard work and I got it in my mind that I was going to be a multiple Olympics champion.

 

GSB: This kind of attitude is amazing to me. I started playing baseball, football, basketball as a kid. Loved ‘em all. Knew I would never make my living playing any of them…

Etienne: Crazy, right? Well I started paddling a solo kayak — or K1, as it is termed in the Olympics — eventually making the British under 23 team.

But, at a certain point, I realized I wasn’t going to get where I wanted to go as a solo kayaker. I had the opportunity to switch to double canoe category, or C2, which made a lot of sense at the time.

 

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Etienne Stott navigates a British Premier Division race in Nottingham (Photo credit: Etienne Stott)

 

GSB: Why was that?

Etienne: In the early 2000s, C2 was not seen as very prestigious and there weren’t many crews in the UK or around the world. British Canoeing decided to target it for Olympic medals.

My best friend at the time, Tim Baillie, suggested I form a crew with him. For us both, it was a chance to reboot our Olympic mission and there was an exciting sense of possibility, even at that early stage.

We worked incredibly hard and progressed quickly. However, when it came time for the trials, we performed very badly. It was a disaster, really.

But you know what? That bitter disappointment really paved the way for us to grow and prepare for an even stronger run for the 2012 Olympics…

 

GSB: …Which would of course be in London in your home country. Talk about that experience…

Etienne: Incredible all the way around.

It was a huge investment in time and energy to get there. I had to overcome a career-threatening shoulder injury in the buildup but was able to do that.

Going in, we were the third seed with the Slovakian Hochschoerner twins the strong favorites — they were legends, really. But we stuck to our values: Consistent, intense hard work, be excellent, don’t compromise on decency and being respectful. And we worked really hard with our psychology to make sure we saw the home crowd in a healthy, empowering way, as opposed to something that would heap unworkable pressure upon us.

So, with all of those factors coming together, we were able to win Gold. It was incredible.

What’s amazing is that, even though, in the whole scheme of things, canoeing is a minor sport, we are still loved by the British people for winning that Gold.

The warmth and goodwill that London 2012 brought about seem to still be around when people talk about this all these years later.

 

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Etienne Stott after winning Gold in two man canoeing at London 2012 (Photo credit: AE Photos)

 

GSB: That is at once incredible and also not surprising to me. How do you follow up winning Gold at your home Olympics?

Etienne: Well, nothing ever stays the same, right?

Tim retired in 2013 and Mark Proctor became my teammate. We had a finite mission: To make the 2016 Rio Olympics team.

By the time I’d rehabilitated from another serious shoulder injury sustained in 2013, we had a 14-month window to make it. It was very exciting to try to build a new team. While we didn’t secure selection to Team GB for Rio 2016, we were proud to make the reserve team. And then I retired after that.

 

GSB: Sounds like it was the right time. The transition from being a world class athlete to post-athletic career is often a difficult one. What did you do?

Etienne: My aim was to take the hard-won knowledge from my sporting career and apply it in areas where it could do the most good. I had come to have a really strong belief in the vast quantities of untapped human potential in the world, and so I was interested in doing some youth work, mentoring young athletes, as well as coaching high performance adults in the corporate world.

But I came to the realization that the threats of ecological collapse and climactic breakdown were becoming massive impediments to the realization of human potential. All that I wanted to do with my life, all I wanted for theirs, was in jeopardy as a result of our woefully insufficient response to the state of our natural life support systems.

 

GSB: That was quite an insightful realization. To come to it, you had to have some kind of prior interest in the environment. When did that start?

Etienne: I don’t really know, to tell you the truth.

As a boy scout, I certainly enjoyed the outdoors.

But my appreciation and concern for the environment really grew during my canoeing career. We traveled all over the world — with a huge carbon footprint, I know — and I saw wondrous places. From Wales and Scotland in my own country to the Pyrenees and the Alps to South Africa to Brazil to Canada.

I went on a trip to the Maldives…

 

GSB: …an archipelago of islands off of the Indian subcontinent that are existentially threatened by sea level rise…

Etienne: Exactly.

Anyway, I went snorkeling there and saw the wondrous beauty of these incredible ecosystems, yet one couldn’t miss how precariously balanced and vulnerable they were. The inhabitants of these places are too, of the future they face. Sea level rise and damage to these fragile natural systems is an immediate and direct threat to their very existence.

And even though my view was that the environment wasn’t a political issue, I started to become more conflicted about my carbon footprint towards the end of my sporting career.

I mean, I visited the favelas while in Rio in 2016 and saw the awful environmental degradation there not to mention grinding inequality and poverty. After that, it became very hard to reconcile flying around the world, emitting all of that carbon into the atmosphere.

 

GSB: So, what did you do about it?

Etienne: Well, I became a vegetarian when I retired for environmental reasons and eventually went fully plant-based.

I began pursuing a second degree in psychology during my career and finished it after retirement. My first degree was in Engineering at the University of Nottingham.

Anyway, my online study focused in on things like critical social psychology and power dynamics.

 

GSB: What did you learn?

Etienne: It was mind blowing.

I was exposed to post-colonial psychology, feminist psychology, and more. My social psychology studies really politicized me. I learned that every act in the world is a political act. Psychology also connected sports, human potential and politics for me.

So, I started becoming more publicly political.

In summer 2018 I took part in a vegan camp out; there were workshops about how direct action could be used in animal rights activism and I learned about the way the US civil rights struggle has inspired so many movements.

And later that year I heard about Extinction Rebellion or XR from a mate on the Swedish canoe team. He was involved with one of the early Greta Thunberg strikes.

XR is a politically non-partisan international movement that uses non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

 

GSB: Extinction Rebellion has a bit of a radical image, protesters looking to get arrested and such. How did you think about that aspect of it? And what did you do once you got involved?

Etienne: I thought this was exactly what was needed: Non-violent, non-partisan.

We would reluctantly get arrested to expose the gravity and the urgency of the crisis and to express our anger at the woeful shortcomings of our government on the issue as our emissions keep on rising. When the usual avenues of voting, lobbying, petitions and even mass marches have not resulted in the required response from authorities, then history has shown that peaceful civil disobedience can be a powerful and effective measure that gets results.

I went to London for non-violent, direct action training with about 100 or so others. We were preparing for the Five Bridges Protest. Our goal was to shut down five bridges in central London to send an un-ignorable message about the urgency of the climate crisis. It really was a test: Did we have enough organization and will to pull it off, especially getting arrested?

 

GSB: So, did you? And if so, what was it like?

Etienne: Well, I helped block off the Lambeth Bridge and got arrested. I had done quite a bit of mental preparation — after all, I had never broken the law before. I was fearful of being identified as an Olympic Champion and so tried to be as incognito as possible.

It was surreal to go the police station and then the cell. It’s like you’re in a movie. I really was at peace with it. This, in the end of the day, was in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. I was there for about eight hours before being released.

 

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Etienne Stott leaves the court after his first arrest (Photo credit: Etienne Stott)

 

GSB: How did you follow that up? How could you use your status as an Olympic Gold Medalist as an asset?

Etienne: Great question. In the spring of 2019, I was working on my dissertation, a psychological study of environmental activism.

In April 2019, XR launched a peaceful uprising that was intended to last up to two weeks. I was deeply conflicted, as I didn’t think I could attend because of a conflict with my studies, but as I watched it unfold online, I realized I needed to add my full weight to this moment and use my the platform and my voice as an Olympic champion.

So, I put down my dissertation, hopped on the train for the two hour ride to London to join them. I got arrested at the Waterloo Bridge for a minor public-order offense; in my case, sitting in a road when police ask me to leave.

The important thing was that I made it a point to be arrested and eventually convicted as an Olympic champion, which I believed would help normalize and legitimize these peaceful, but assertive actions. Even the conservative-leaning Daily Mail covered the story in a sympathetic and even-handed way. I knew that some folks wouldn’t like it, but it was very important to take a stand.

 

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Etienne Stott's second Extinction Rebellion arrest attracted the attention of the media (Photo credit: Press Association)

 

GSB: What if anything has come of the Extinction Rebellion protests as far as the British government is concerned?

Etienne: Some good and bad, not surprisingly, right?

A few days after the “April Rebellion,” Parliament declared a climate and ecological emergency. But nothing in terms of actual policy has resulted from it.  But I know that Extinction Rebellion will not rest until a just and truly democratic change of course occurs.

I am hopeful, though. We need systemic changes to safeguard our future. To paraphrase Dr. King, I believe citizens will bend towards better climate and environmental choices, but these won’t be sufficient unless social and economic systems are set up to support them.

 

GSB: I too am optimistic, if cautiously. I am convinced athletes need to be part of the solution in terms of engaging their millions if not billions of fans on climate. So that leads me to Champions For Earth, the organization that is trying to organize athletes to do just that. How did you get involved?

Etienne: Yeah, Champions For Earth is about using the power of sport and athletes to make emotional connections with fans on climate. We need to be voices of this emergency.

So, in 2017 I met Dave Hampton at a transition group trying to help set up athletes for the next stage of life. We both felt strongly about the environment, climate, that athletes have a responsibility. We also got that the values of sport — endeavor, overcoming obstacles, teamwork and focus — are necessary in the climate fight.

This had already existed in Dave’s mind and, by talking with him, it clicked for me too.

Our first action as Champions For Earth was a letter, urging a ban on hydraulic fracking¹ that got published in the Financial Times. We followed that up with a letter signed by 19 British athletes in support of the global climate strike led by Greta that got published in The Guardian.

 

GSB: Those are two big wins. What’s next for Champions For Earth?

Etienne: Well, the team is growing, which is great. Our job is to inspire them to find their voices, to show people what can be done. We would love to see athletes speaking out about the climate emergency, despite the critics and criticisms. We recognize that speaking out is a brave act, but believe that if athletes stand together, they can feel more empowered to use their voices.

 

GSB: How do you see that happening? 

Etienne:  We’re living in absolutely fascinating and pivotal times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made people realize how interconnected we really are, how our individual health and wellbeing is totally connected to our collective health and wellbeing.

We’ve also seen the disproportionate impact of this crisis on those very people who we rely on the most and who are undervalued in our current social and economic setup.

It’s also revealed our vulnerability and lack of resilience when things go wrong, especially when government responses to the science seems to favor economic, rather than human consequences. I think more and more people are making the link between all of this and the greater looming crisis in the form of climate and ecological breakdown.

What we need is an organized and caring response to the science and we have seen that when governments have the will, they can move mountains very quickly. And we need this sort of urgency in these vital years to tackle our precarious environmental situation.

 

GSB: Do you see links to the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the environmental emergency?

Etienne: Yes, absolutely.

It seems to me that learning about the environmental catastrophe we are facing quickly leads you to the realization that one of the reasons that we haven’t taken more rapid and far-reaching action is that this environmental breakdown disproportionately affects people of color in the so-called ‘majority world’ – where most of the global population lead lives very different to our own.

They bear the brunt of the affects yet contribute the least in terms of emissions.

In my opinion, there is a further injustice, as the prosperity and privilege I benefit from today is built on our colonial past and the exploitation of people and resources in other parts of the world. And this exploitation continues relentlessly.

So, for me, addressing the climate and ecological emergency has to proceed via a recognition of this situation and serious attempts to address it. The horrible death of George Floyd and too many others is another symptom of a system that is consuming our planet and its people. If we want to safeguard our future, we must change course and I’m prepared to dedicate everything I have to achieving that course change.

I can see environmental and race issues being brought to the fore at 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Understanding and sympathy for these issues is building and, because of the COVID-forced postponement, we now have 13 months to organize and galvanize athletes and their fans. So that’s the task we’re on with!

 

Photo at top: Tim Baillie (3A) and Etienne Stott (3B) race for Gold at London 2012 (Photo credit: AE Photos)
¹ Fracking: The process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc. so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas.

 


 

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Episode 5: Joint Interview with Lily Brazel, Field Hockey Star, Eco-Preneur and Podcaster

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