The GSB Interview: Chris Mazdzer, US Olympic Medal-winning Luger & Eco-Athlete

Chris Mazdzer is a true pioneer.

He became the first American male to win an Olympic medal in Single’s luge when he took home silver at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games. And he is leading a burgeoning movement among world class lugers to engage fans on the climate change fight.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Mazdzer about his work on the luge track and as an environmental activist.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Chris, before we get into your very important work with your fellow lugers on the environment and on climate, I’d like to know how you got into the sport in the first place.

Chris Mazdzer: Thanks, Lew. So I grew up in Peru, New York near Lake Placid…

GSB: …Site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice” — “Do you believe in miracles?? YES!!!!” — and one of the few places in the U.S. with a bobsled/luge run.

Chris: That would be the place. I was exposed to luge at eight years old and it was natural for me. I loved sledding — would go sledding through apple orchards for hours. Luge was like ultimate sledding for me. Anyway, I showed some talent for it at a young age. I was on a development team when I was 12; at 13, I showed enough promise that I was picked for a junior team that went to Europe for a competition.

GSB: Sliding down a sheet of ice on your back, with no protection. Yikes! I guess when you’re young, you’re more likely to be fearless, right? How come you picked luge over bobsled?

Chris: First of all there were many more kids bobsledding so there was a long line and not as many runs. Plus you’re only driving 50 percent of the time — that’s really where the action is. And luge was just SO MUCH FUN! It’s as simple as this: two runs with bobsled or ten with luge. Anyways, when I was 17, I was having a breakout season and tried out for the Olympic team for the 2006 Torino Games. I missed the last spot by 0.161 seconds total over three runs; lost out to my roommate.

GSB: You must’ve been devastated…

Chris: …Disappointed but not at all devastated. It gave me motivation and the confidence to really believe, “Hey, I can do this!” So I made the team in 2010, finishing 13th in Vancouver. Same thing happened in 2014 in Sochi. Finally, I broke through last year in Pyeongchang, winning silver

GSB …In the process, becoming the first American male luger to win a medal of any kind in singles. Congratulations! Do you compete in doubles?

 

Chris Mazdzer

Chris Mazdzer (Photo credit: USA Luge)

 

Chris: Thank you, Lew. I did doubles in juniors but ended up specializing in singles, until now that is. My goal is to give the Olympics one more shot in Beijing in 2022, both in singles and for the first time in doubles.

GSB: How about medaling in both? Not to put any pressure on you or anything like that! OK, now pivoting to the environment. How did you get involved?

Chris: I’m 30 years-old. Growing up in the Adirondacks and being involved in winter sports, I’ve seen changes to our winters just in the time that I’ve been active. From bigger thaws to more rain during winter when it would normally snow. But it’s not just in winter. I travel a lot — I was in Indonesia and saw massive amounts of plastic on the beaches, in the oceans. I live in Salt Lake City these days, and the air quality is really, really bad. I don’t need the science to tell me — it’s clear, the climate is changing, the environment is worsening and it is humans that are helping to cause these adverse effects. And studying the science only confirms this. Without a doubt.

GSB: So what did you do, what are you doing to have an impact?

Chris: Well, I started out looking to offset the carbon emissions for which I’m responsible from all my flights. But, because I fly over 150,000 miles per year, that becomes quite costly. So I try to offset at least half for now. But then I became an athlete member on the International Luge Federation (FIL), sitting on a lot of committees. And I realized this is where I could have an impact! We’re starting small, working to have reusable cups at major competitions. But then I saw a video featuring several skiers at the World Championships in Finland, talking about why they love winter and why it’s important to take action on climate to protect it. I thought to myself, ‘We could do something similar.’ People don’t believe politicians; they don’t believe scientists. Who do they trust? Their peers and athletes! Scary but true: They trust athletes more than scientists. Thing is, athletes generally don’t engage on climate. And so I aimed to change that, at least with lugers.

GSB: You’ve put yourself on the hot seat, Chris: Qualify for the Olympics and getting athletes — in this case — lugers to care about and talk about climate. How are you doing the latter?

Chris: Well, I started in January by putting together a seminar for lugers competing at the 2019 World Championships in Winterberg, Germany. I was able to secure funding from one of my personal sponsors and brought in an expert and amazing speaker, Michael Pedersen of M Inc., a leader in sport governance. Tragically and unbelievably, Michael passed away suddenly a few weeks after our event due to a heart attack. He was 43.

GSB: I heard about that. What a tragic, unfathomable loss.

Chris: It’s still hard to believe. And his presentation to our group was incredible. He shared that athletes are in a unique position, with a powerful megaphone. He showed videos of people who’ve stood up and spoken up on a variety of issues, including climate, including Greta Thunberg, the 16 year-old Swedish girl who recently was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for starting what has virally become a global student “climate strike” movement.. He did not focus on the science — the athletes are already on board there — but rather the need to use our platform to talk about the environment, whether it be climate, plastic ocean waste, pollution, etc.

 

Michael Pedersen

The late Michael Pedersen (Photo credit: M Inc.)

 

GSB: How did the lugers react and how many showed up?

Chris: Michael did such a great job — they really bought in. We had 15 lugers there. It was not as many as we would’ve liked but it was World Championship Week, the guys had to train, had media requirements so it was tough to get a bigger group. And it was a first time, so we learned a lot and am confident we’ll do better going forward.

GSB: How did you do on the track in Winterberg?

Chris: I only competed in doubles and doubles sprint this year due to a neck injury I sustained earlier in the week.  My partner Jayson Terdiman and I finished fifth in the Doubles sprint and eleventh in Doubles. Being it was our first year together I felt that we did we really well.

GSB: Good to hear. What else are you working on, sustainability-wise?

Chris: I’m working on the single use plastic issue among athletes and also with the IOC to see how they can help athletes reduce their carbon footprints. It’s a bigger issue than you might think — we get killed by some critics. Because of going from event to event all over the world, my carbon footprint is 10 to 15 times that of the average American. I think that finding creative ways to partner with the IOC, FIL and sponsors to help fund the offsetting of athlete travel-related emissions will allow athletes to stand on firmer ground when discussing this important topic.

 

Luge - Winter Olympics Day 1

Chris Mazdzer navigates Turn 14 at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics (Photo credit: USA Luge)

 


 

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The GSB Interview with Ann Duffy, Sustainability Leader for Olympic, FIFA World Cup Bids — Part II: Advancing Mega-Event Sustainability Post-Vancouver 2010; Where We Go From Here

Ann Duffy has been working at the intersection of mega-sports events and sustainability for more than a decade. She was hired as Chief Sustainability Officer for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Since then, Ann has been involved in some way, shape or form with the sustainability efforts for several of the Olympic/Paralympic bids, as well as with the successful United Bid of Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup. No one is better positioned to talk about sustainability and mega sports events than Ann Duffy so GreenSportsBlog is honored to offer this two part interview.

In yesterday’s Part I, Ann shared how mega-sports events are in her blood, how she came to lead the sustainability efforts at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games and what she and team were able to accomplish there.

Today, in Part II, we examine Ann’s post-Vancouver 2010 work with a variety of Olympic and FIFA World Cup bid and organizing committees. We also discuss what future bid and organizing committees can do to engage fans on climate change and other environmental issues.

 

GSB: Kudos to you and the Vancouver 2010 Organizing Committee (VANOC) team for advancing mega-event sustainability. What did you do for a follow up act once the Olympic Flame was doused?

Ann: Thanks! Like I said before, this was the best job I ever had. It was also incredibly intense. Once the Games were over I decided I didn’t want to work in such a cauldron. So in 2010, as my work with VANOC wound down, I started quietly to build The Ann Duffy Group as a sustainability-focused consultancy to mega-event bid and host committees, with an emphasis on the broader, ESG definition of sustainability. The organizing committee for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics reached out in June, 2010 and asked “Can you help us more fully reflect environmental, social and governance goals of the IOC?

GSB: I’m sure you could and did help them. My question is did the Russian authorities allow the sustainability plans to actually be implemented. Aside from the insanity, in my view, of awarding a Winter Olympics to a Mediterreanean-like city on the Black Sea, it sure looked like the Russian government engaged in a serious greenwash. Was that the case?

Ann: Well, I worked with the Sochi committee for one year until the fall of 2011. My experience with my Russian colleagues was incredible; they were totally committed. We put together a sustainability management system including an environmental protection program, a process for sustainable procurement, and a new sustainability reporting structure.

 

Duffy Sochi

Ann Duffy (2nd from right) and her colleagues at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Organizing Committee (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)

 

GSB: They didn’t have one in place?

Ann: No. Sadly, the program didn’t get fully implemented and the sustainability team was terminated 18 months before the Games. It’s just different in Russia, obviously. I mean, there was no warning in the run up as to how they would turn on the LGBTQ communities the way they did.

GSB: That was awful…and not surprising.

Ann: Thankfully, Canada showed how it’s done by having a Pride House at Canada House in Sochi. And the Deputy Mayor of Vancouver at the time went to Thomas Bach, head of the IOC, and pressed him to ensure that the IOC would expand the Olympic Charter to address LGBTQ issues and they did. On sustainability, I worked on the IOC’s Sustainability and Legacy Commission as part of the development of its Agenda 2020 (a strategic roadmap for the future of the Olympic movement).

GSB: Good job, Ann; good job, Canada! And despite the problems with Sochi that were way beyond your control, congratulations on getting The Ann Duffy Group up and running quickly.

Ann: I was very blessed and very busy. From 2013 to 2015, I worked with the local organizing committees of three, count ’em three mega-events, all of which were happening in Canada in 2015.

GSB: I know about the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup; what were the other two?

Ann: The Canada Winter Games were held in Prince George, BC in February of that year. Then the FIFA Women’s World Cup were held across Canada^ in June-July. And then Toronto hosted the Pan Am Games in late July.

 

Women's World Cup

England (white) battles Mexico during the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup (Photo credit: Zou Zheng/Xinhua)

 

GSB: That’s a mega-event trifecta right there! Did you get any sleep?

Ann: Not much. Especially when you factor in that, in 2013, I also was working on the sustainability aspects of Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, which ultimately went to Tokyo.

GSB: Talk about what you did for the 2015 Canada mega-event trifecta…

Ann: We built on the sustainability efforts of Vancouver 2010 with all three mega-events. The Canada Winter Games are by far the smallest, featuring younger, pre-Olympic athletes. We raised the green bar for all Canada Games going forward by improving sustainability practices, beefing up sustainability-related community engagement and issuing a sustainability report. The FIFA Women’s World Cup was a much bigger yet different animal…

GSB: How so?

Ann: Well, first of all, FIFA put greater emphasis on the Men’s World Cup. But that just meant we had to push extra hard and we did. We worked to leave a sport legacy with integrated environmental management processes and sport development opportunities for women and girls in each of the six host cities and national soccer association. The Pan Am Games were more focused on economic and social sustainability than the environment…

GSB: Why do you think that was the case?

Ann: It comes down to the opportunities and preferences of leadership, plain and simple.

GSB: I guess. But if mega-sports events are really going to lead on sustainability, what can be done to ensure environment and climate are never relegated to the sidelines again?

Ann: I think the prevalence of visible best practices in Europe and other host cities and stadia that demonstrate responsibility for climate impacts, waste impacts, water and biodiversity will help. Environmental stewardship and respect for human rights are now bid requirements for FIFA and Olympic bids. North American professional sports leagues like the NHL, NFL, MLS and MLB are demonstrating leadership. Stadium owners that have built or renovated stadia to green building standards like LEED are also leading on green operations and supporting community initiatives.

GSB: Speaking of leadership, what kind of sustainability projects do you like to lead more: Bids or organizing committees?

Ann: Good question. I guess I love both, but for different reasons. Creativity and “visioning” are crucial for bid work. Organizing committee work is also satisfying — it involves not only organizing and implementing but also coaching, and that means everyone from volunteers up to the C-suite.

GSB: Talking about bid work, you consulted with one of the most sustainable mega-event bids to date, LA 2028.

Ann: Actually, when I started working with them on sustainability it was the LA 2024 bid. But the IOC awarded Paris, another incredibly sustainable bid, those Games and slid LA to 2028. It was great to work with Brence Culp and the LA sustainability team.

GSB: Brence is terrific. GreenSportsBlog interviewed her awhile back.

 

Duffy Brence Culp Rio

Ann Duffy (l) and Brence Culp, head of sustainability for LA 2028 (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)

 

Ann: LA 2028 is an example of what you can do sustainability-wise, when all the stakeholders get it: The city, county, state and local utilities were “all in”. So were the sponsors.

GSB: It doesn’t hurt when most of the venues for LA 2028 already exist…You recently worked on another bid in which no new venues are needed, the United Bid between Canada, Mexico and the US that won the right to host the 2026 FIFA Men’s World Cup over Morocco.

Ann: The environment, including climate change, along with community and fan engagement took central roles in both the United Bid and the LA 2028 bid. In addition to no new permanent venues, both have robust and sophisticated climate action plans that include new partnerships and collaboration with city and state utilities, public transit providers, stadia/venue owners. Host cities will showcase urban policies such as bold commitments to clean energy.

GSB: What was your role on the United Bid?

Ann: I was a sustainability-legacy advisor. It was a real sprint as the timeline was short but we were fortunate that FIFA had established a strong sustainability mandate.

GSB: They needed to do that, especially in light of the mega-laundry list of mega-problems with Qatar 2022: Human rights violations, indentured servitude, deaths of perhaps as many as 1,200 construction workers building eight stadiums in a country of only 2.5 million people, stadiums that will have air conditioning even though they’re outdoor venues because of the country’s extreme heat…What did the sustainability mandate, well, mandate for the 2026 bid?

Ann: It went deep, Lew. And the United Bid stepped up. GRI sustainability reporting, a climate action plan, ISO 2012-1 certification for sustainable events. Human rights, labor rights, ethical business conduct standards. Green Sports Alliance Board member Mary Harvey took the lead on human rights. I took the lead on the rest, working with the financial services firm Grant Thornton on ethical business and Arup, the global design and engineering firm, on some of the environmental aspects.

GSB: I’m so glad you and Mary were on the case and that the United Bid won the day. Now I’d like to widen the lens a bit. You’ve been involved in the greening of the Olympics and World Cups from the early days of Vancouver 2010 through LA 2028. My main concern, as it is with the whole of the Green-Sports movement, is that most fans — attendees and the much bigger number who watch on TV or online — have no idea this is going on. None.

Ann: Lew, I’m with you 100 percent! We need to do a much better job of using the platform of the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup to share the great greening stories with fans.

GSB: So how do we ensure this happens? If Rio 2016 could have a climate change-themed vignette at the Opening Ceremonies seen by an estimated 1 billion people, why didn’t Pyeongchang 2018 do something similar? Will Tokyo 2020 or Beijing 2022 communicate something on climate to fans?

Ann: Funny you mention Rio 2016. I helped on the Rio 2016 with communications during the actual Games.

GSB: I would be surprised if you weren’t involved with Rio!

Ann: I was fortunate to be at the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies. When the powerful climate change vignette came on, I started bawling. Mainstreaming climate change messaging was so…powerful. Incredible, really.

 

Duffy Rio Open

Ann Duffy and her colleagues on the 2016 Rio Olympics Organizing Committee at the rehearsal for the Opening Ceremonies (Photo credit: Ann Duffy)

 

GSB: So how do we make sure that climate change vignette is not a one off?

Ann: Well, the Olympics…and all sport event hosts, frankly, are desperately trying gain relevance and traction with younger audiences…

GSB: …Millennials, GenZ and the rest…

Ann: And those young people want to have an exciting sport event experience. Young people expect responsible action that includes all of it — climate solutions, environmental solutions, diversity and ethical solutions. Sometimes these features will take the lead in the event experience and most of the time they will support the event experience. Mega-event hosts need to recognize this. Well executed, eco-themed fan engagement programs will go over well. Sponsor brands are already stepping up, as well. I am confident this will happen at Paris 2024, the United 2026 FIFA World Cup and LA 2028.

SB: What about Tokyo 2020, Beijing 2022, and Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022?

Ann: I’d love to say “yes” to the engagement question with those events but it’s a bit complicated. I haven’t worked with any of those mega-events so what I know about them is from a distance. As far as Tokyo 2020 is concerned, I know that, from a technical innovation perspective, the Summer Games will be at the leading edge of sustainability, from energy efficiency to tree planting and much more. On the other hand, from what I’ve heard, on social aspects of sustainability like LGBTQ issues, they’re not so advanced. And on fan engagement issues, I don’t know what they’re going to do. I do know that Pyeongchang 2018 did not follow the lead of Rio and communicate their greenness to fans.

GSB: True. And based on my conversation with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee sustainability team, it seems, sadly, like they will be more like Pyeongchang than Rio in terms of fan engagement. I don’t have any intel on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and sustainability as yet…

Ann: …One thing I can say about China is that, as a country, it is stepping up on climate action nationally far more aggressively than the USA is. I don’t yet know of any specific action by the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics…

GSB: …Maybe the Beijing Organizing Committee will surprise in a good way. Speaking of 2022, what are your thoughts, sustainability-wise, regarding the aforementioned Qatar FIFA World Cup?

Ann: The problems, human rights-wise and otherwise, have been horrible. And that Qatar was a weird choice in the first place given the size and climate of the country is an understatement. The one heartening thing is that, as we heard at the GSA Summit in June, there are some striking environmental innovations underway with the stadiums and the strong national commitment to renewable energy will be a part of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

GSB: I hear what you’re saying, Ann, but I guess, as the expression goes, I’m from Missouri on Qatar: Show Me! At least it looks like environmental sustainability will play a big role at the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, the United 2026 FIFA World Cup and the LA 2028 Summer Games…What do you think?

Ann: Mega-events like the Olympics and FIFA World Cups generally have seven year planning cycles. The key from an environmental sustainability perspective is to develop an integrated set of environmental actions that tackle climate, water, waste, pollution and biodiversity all together throughout the planning cycle. For both Paris 2024 and LA 2028 I am confident we will see “net positive solutions.”

GSB: What does “net positive solutions” mean?

Ann: That hosts will be adding more environmental assets and benefits to their communities and host region than they consume.

GSB: I love that. Two things: 1. Paris and LA really should engage fans on “Net positive solutions” and 2. I only wish Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Beijing and Qatar went the “Net positive solutions,” mega-event route.

Ann: Well, we know we need bolder leadership on sustainability engagement, in all walks of life, from business to government to mega-events. The progress on engagement at mega-events won’t be linear but, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of mega-events is long but it bends towards sustainability and engagement.

GSB: Amen, Ann, AMEN!

 

Ann Duffy shares her thoughts on the intersection of sustainability, innovation and mega-sports events (3 mins 4 secs)

 

IN TUESDAY’S PART I: Ann shared the story of her beginnings as an Olympics-loving girl in Western Canada through her time leading the sustainability efforts at the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver.

^ Edmonton, Moncton (New Brunswick); Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg were the host cities for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

 


 

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