Guest Blog

Sports can fight climate change – I’m betting my family’s future on it

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Last week, GreenSportsBlog highlighted Seyi (pronounced SHAY) Smith’s climate action-centered candidacy for the IOC Athletes Commission. Voting is open now, with the electorate being the athletes at the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.

Today, GSB runs Smith’s Op Ed — which offered his rationale as to why the rare winter-summer Olympian and EcoAthletes Champion is running that appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Sports website on January 30.

 


A year ago, my wife and I were talking about whether it would be wise to bring a child into this world.

What future would they have? Were we exacerbating climate change by creating more sources of human emissions?

As a Canadian Olympian who was born in Nigeria, and competed at both the Summer and Winter Games, I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of the world. But as an electrical engineer with a speciality in renewable energy technology, I couldn’t help but see the impact my life was having. Its carbon footprint and the waste it can produce is untenable and at odds with the future I wanted my child to have.


Oluseyi Smith, far right, in panel discussion about bid to host a second Calgary Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, in 2018.(Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press) Seyi Smith, far right, in panel discussion about the bid to bring the Olympic Winter Games back to  Calgary, in 2018.(Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)
 

Researchers from the Sport Ecology Group predict that unless there is change by 2050, facilities used by professional sport teams throughout North America will consistently experience the flooding, heat waves, and poor air quality we are just starting to deal with now.

When I talk to business leaders and youth about climate change and why it matters so much to me, I tell them the story of when I won and lost Olympic bronze in the space of 10 minutes.

I was part of the Canadian 4×100-meter relay team that initially finished third at the London Olympics in 2012. We were ecstatic. We won the first relay medal for Canada since the 1996 Games.

Ten minutes into celebrations and victory laps, we found out we had been disqualified for a lane infraction. In a heartbeat, our world was destroyed.


Oluseyi Smith, left, Justyn Warner, centre, and Gavin Smellie, react after being disqualified in the 4x100-metre finals at the 2012 London Olympics (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press) Seyi Smith, left, Justyn Warner, center, and Gavin Smellie, react after being disqualified in the 4×100-meter finals at the 2012 London Olympics (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)
 

It was a terrible feeling that still sits in my gut to this day. In quiet moments, I still ask the same questions I did that day:  What could have been? What could we have done differently?

Now, I lie awake at night terrified that in three decades, I will be asking the same questions about climate change. That is what drives me to do all I can with sport and sustainability.

I remain positive. I have faith that – if inspired and led by those they admire (including athletes) – humanity can embrace the change we need.

Three groups are crucial to fighting climate change through sport: major sport organizations, athletes, and grassroots sport organizations.

 

Of those three levels, the major organizations likely have the most resources available to lead the way. Last October, I helped bring together athletes, politicians, and industry leaders for a Green Sports Day in Canada. It is an annual forum to learn and share best practices for sustainable sport.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is encouraging other global sport bodies to sign onto the United Nations Sports for Climate Change Framework, where it and 300 other signatories have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.

The signatories pledged to have all Olympic Games from 2030 onwards be climate positive, meaning the Olympics will remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit. They plan on achieving this by optimizing their air travel, funding the development of an “Olympic Forest” which will contribute to the UN-backed Great Green Wall project in Africa. This will create sustainability strategy templates for all the International Sport Federations and National Olympic Committees, and raise awareness and educate the sporting world about sustainability.


Pilot Justin Kripps, Jesse Lumsden, Alexander Kopacz and Oluseyi Smith are shown during the four-man bobsleigh final at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)Pilot Justin Kripps, Jesse Lumsden, Alexander Kopacz and Seyi Smith are shown during the four-man bobsleigh final at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)
 

At the grassroots level of sport mitigating climate change, I founded Racing To Zero, a not-for-profit organization which helps local sport events in Calgary reduce their waste and carbon footprint.

We also encourage parents and kids to organize carbon-efficient ways of traveling during the season, eliminate waste, and source sustainable materials for clothing and equipment.

If parents and coaches are making this routine and explaining why, then the next generation is more likely to make sustainable decisions.

Now, my attention is on the third group that has the most power to influence sport and others to change: high-level athletes.

I want to help focus the athlete’s voice on our generation’s greatest challenge. Athletes are doers. We overcome problems and persevere, we execute. Olympians are uniquely positioned as role models who cross cultures, and we need to embrace that power and our platforms. I take inspiration from my bobsleigh teammate and Olympic champion Justin Kripps. If we believe there is value in bringing 206 nations together to the Olympic Games every four years to celebrate our shared humanity, then we need to ensure that in doing so, we’re not endangering humanity in the process.

Becoming an Olympian takes millions of small steps and a few big performances. Fighting climate changes is the same. Yes, it can seem insurmountable, but if everyone starts taking small steps to make a difference, the big and crucial changes will come too.

Our baby is due in March. We decided to choose hope, the way athletes see hope. An athlete knows the only way to turn hope into reality is by working resolutely every day to make it come true. We can be players in the greatest comeback story the world has ever seen: a #ClimateComeback.


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