Leilani Münter, the groundbreaking Eco ‘Vegan, Hippie Chick with a Race Car’, was named Evergreen Athlete on Monday, one of five prizes that will make up the first-ever BBC Green Sport Awards, in partnership with Sport Positive. Awards for the four other categories — two for athletes and two for sports organizations — will be given out at the third annual Sport Positive Summit at London’s Wembley Stadium on Tuesday October 4. Nominations for the two organizational prizes, one for ambition and impact, the other for raising awareness, are open to the public until July 31 at 9 AM ET.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with BBC Sport’s Dave Lockwood and Claire Poole, founder of Sport Positive, about the genesis of their partnership, their goals for the awards, the selection of Münter for the lifetime achievement honor and more.
“BBC Sport has been looking to build awareness among sports fans of the connections between sports and climate several years. Since BBC is publicly funded, it is unable to campaign about any issues, including climate change. We thought that by creating the BBC Green Sport Awards, we could show our commitment to climate action in a much needed optimistic yet factual way, by highlighting the good news that is out there in terms of what athletes and sport organizations are doing on environmental and climate.”
So said Dave Lockwood, BBC Sport’s first Editorial Lead for Sustainability, about the rationale for the broadcaster’s Green Sport Awards.
When the BBC looked for a partner in the Green-Sports space with the necessary experience and institutional knowledge to deliver a credible Awards show, they didn’t have to go very far. Sport Positive, the four year-old London-based organization founded by Claire Poole to “use the power of sport to increase action and ambition on climate change”, brought in BBC Sport in 2018 to support the development and promotion of its Premier League Sustainability Table¹, which launched in 2019. Turnabout was fair play, with BBC Sport inviting Sport Positive to help bring the Green Sport Awards to life.
Claire Poole (Photo credit: Sport Positive)
And, after two years of running virtual events, Sport Positive is hosting its first in-person Summit at Wembley Stadium October 4-5. Arguably the most iconic sports venue in the UK, Wembley is the perfect venue at which to announce four Green Sport Awardees and celebrate all five, including the American race card driver Leilani Münter who was named on Monday as the well-deserved winner of the first Evergreen Athlete lifetime achievement prize.
The BBC Green Sport Awards noted in a statement that “a panel of judges recognized Münter, 48, as one of the first athletes to use her platform to prominent effect in raising awareness of environmental issues, often to the detriment of her career. Unafraid and unapologetic, she brought the environmental conversation to motor sports fans, while also challenging convention as a woman in a male-dominated sport. Münter was doing this long before it became a cause celebre elsewhere in motorsport, and significantly prior to the development of EV racing.”
She was first sponsored to race in 2001, but it was watching “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 that really prompted a change in direction in her career: “That film was what spurred the change from a race-car driver who privately cared about these issues, to a race-car driver that was going to put it on the hood of my car and bring it to a demographic that maybe weren’t thinking about them.”
From that point, Münter’s environmentalism encompassed all aspects of her career. Most notably, she stopped accepting sponsorship from companies that made meat or dairy products, tested on animals, or produced fossil fuels.
Leilani Münter (Photo credit: Scott LePage)
“Part of what let me throw caution to the wind was I felt like such an odd one out being a woman in a man’s sport,” Münter told BBC Sport. “My tag line was ‘Never underestimate a vegan hippy-chick with a race car’.”
She gravitated towards stock car racing (aka NASCAR and other circuits), the most popular form of auto racing in the United States, although F-1 is now growing rapidly.
“Stock cars is where the eyeballs are and I want to do what I can to influence fans to make their next car purchase or lease an electric car,” shared Münter in a 2018 GreenSportsBlog interview, a year before she retired from racing. “[I also] work to show them that eating a plant-based diet and buying solar power are also great life decisions. The more fans I reach, the more I impact…Simple as that.”
That year, Münter — who raced in the ARCA circuit, a NASCAR developmental series — teamed up with her sponsor Vegan Strong teamed up at five races to fund the sampling of vegan Impossible Burgers in the Fan Zones to 30,000 fans. The fans ate ’em up, literally and figuratively.
Since leaving the racetrack in 2019, Münter actively lobbies politicians in support of climate action, including President Biden. She is also on the frontline of climate protests with Hollywood stars such as Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo di Caprio. And she has shifted her activism to “behind a camera rather than behind a wheel”.
In the documentary “Racing Extinction,” the Minnesota native drove an electric vehicle fitted with a special camera to show emissions from other vehicles, as well as a projector to superimpose images of endangered wildlife on to buildings.
“I think it stopped people in their tracks and made them think,” Münter told BBC Sport. “I hope it stayed with them and they change the way they live in order to not have such a big impact on our planet.”
The four remaining Green Sport Award categories to be announced at the Sport Positive Summit in early October are:
- Athlete of the Year: For a professional athlete who has advocated for, raised awareness of, or instigated action on environmental and/or climate change issues in the past 12 months.
- Young Athlete of the Year: For an athlete aged 25 or under who is either professional or on a pathway to elite sport, who has proactively demonstrated support for environmental and/or climate change issues.
- Teamwork: For any sporting organization (professional, community-level or grassroots) that has actively educated or engaged participants, fans, citizens or society at large on climate action.
- Ambition and Impact: For any elite, professional or high-performance sporting body involved in the organization of or participation in competitive sport that has net zero and reduction emissions targets by a specified date.
Shortlists of five nominees for each of the two athlete awards were selected by an independent judging panel. They needed to understand the value of communicating environmental messaging as well as using sport as a platform for communication. With that in mind, the panel included Baroness Tanni Grey-Thomson, a British retired Gold Medal winning Paralympian, now an independent politician, and Justin Rowlatt, the BBC’s Climate Change Editor who has reported on most aspects of the Climate Crisis.
The judging panel for the Teamwork and Ambition/impact awards is made up of sustainability professionals and academics who have the necessary knowledge to bring rigor and integrity to the process. It includes the BBC’s Director of Sustainability Danielle Mulder.
Full details on both panels will be made available by BBC Sport on their website on Thursday.
The BBC Green Sport Awards will be targeted to BBC audiences. The winners will be announced on October 4 on the BBC Sport website. That evening, the winners will be presented as part of a half-hour program that will screened at the Sport Positive Summit at Wembley Stadium and on BBC News Channel (available only in the UK). For those outside the UK, the program will be aired on BBC World on Saturday October 8.
“We decided to make our partnership with Sport Positive a minimum three-year deal because we expect the Green Sport Awards to grow in popularity for fans and importance for the sports industry,” said Lockwood. “Our ambition is to get on BBC 1 or BBC 2, which have the biggest potential audiences, and to grow our global reach and impact.”