Eco-Athlete’s Journey: Stacey Cook, Olympic Skier, Climate Activist

One of GreenSportsBlog’s major initiatives this year is to feature “eco-athletes” whenever we can. They are a small but growing breed and they need the oxygen to share their views and passions when it comes to the climate change fight and other environmental issues.

Winter sports athletes make up a big percentage of the eco-athlete”population. That is no surprise since their playing fields — snowy mountains or valleys — are at high risk due to the effects of climate change. It is great to see alpine and nordic skiers, snowboarders, and more, go outside of their comfort zones by lobbying for climate action in Washington and in state capitols. One such athlete is the recently retired U.S. Olympic downhiller, Stacey Cook.

GreenSportsBlog chatted with Stacey about her journey from tagging along on ski outings with her big brother to developing her own talents on the slopes to discovering her voice beyond skiing through climate change.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Stacey, I am so heartened to see so many elite winter sports athletes getting involved with the climate change issue. And that’s why I am happy to talk with you, an Olympic alpine skier who went way beyond her comfort zone to get involved with climate activism. My guess is you’ve been skiing your whole life. Is that right?

Stacey Cook: Right you are, Lew. I grew up in the Lake Tahoe area of California in a tiny town called Truckee. Snow was a constant so I got into winter sports, skiing in particular, from the time I was four years old. Dad taught my older brother and me — that was the only thing to do in winter — and I had a raw passion for it almost from the get go. And I grew up with great skiers — Julia Mancuso, an Olympic gold medalist in giant slalom, is a lifelong friend.

GSB: Did you go for the alpine events from the beginning — downhill, giant slalom, and slalom — or did you try cross country?

Stacey: Alpine all the way! I loved it. It was total freedom. I was on a team with my older brother and his friends — I was on the slopes from 9-to-5, basically.

 

Cook_Stacey

Stacey Cook (Photo credit: US Ski Team)

 

GSB: Did you know you were good? Were you kicking your brother’s backside?

Stacey: No clue. I did some recreational racing when I was a kid, nothing serious. But I really owe a lot of my success to my older brother Gary — a very strong skier who ended up focusing on football, playing at UNLV plus one season with the Oakland Raiders — I spent so much time chasing him around that I had to get good just to keep up. Someone told my dad he should enter me into a race when I was ten. He did and, you know what? I won!

GSB: WOW!! Did that get you into the competitive youth skiing circuit?

Stacey: Not really. Tell you the truth, I was oblivious to all that. Really, I was passionate but I wasn’t on a travel ski team at all. But what happened was that, in my teens, people I used to beat started to beat me. They were on a team and took it more seriously than I did. And you know what? It pissed me off! So I committed, when I was 16, to make myself a real skier.

GSB: How did you do that?

Stacey: Well, I had a great coach who gave me confidence. So I made a presentation to my parents. I wanted to move to Mammoth Mountain three hours away. I went into the costs, the benefits…

GSB: …How old were you?

Stacey: I was going into my senior year in high school. I had enough credits to graduate after the fall. So after my fall soccer season, I moved to Mammoth on my own and lived with a host family along with other athletes from Washington. Mammoth Resort was founded by Dave McCoy (now 103 years old), who helped back me. It made things much cheaper for my family. So I could follow my passion and become a strong racer. I stayed there and two years later, I made the national team. And from there I went from being unranked to the 2006 Olympics in Torino.

GSB: What event?

Stacey: I was all about the speed events — downhill and Super G.

 

Cook_Stacey 2015

Stacey Cook in action at the 2015 Alpine World Championships in Vail, Colorado (Photo credit: Nathan Bilow, Getty Images)

 

GSB: Wow! A daredevil. High risk, high reward?

Stacey: You know what? I was abnormally healthy over my career — no surgeries — but unfortunately, my crashes came at the Olympics. I crashed in Vancouver in 2010, crashed in practice in Sochi in 2014 and then, in Pyeongchang this year, I got something called “compartment syndrome” in my legs two days before the Games.

GSB: Never heard of it. Sounds serious.

Stacey: It can be very serious. It cuts blood flow to the nerves and muscles. I did 12 hours of rehab a day to try to compete but I couldn’t even do a training run. I was in tears but I was able to make it to the Opening Ceremonies. Which was huge because that was my last Olympics.

GSB: So what to do next? And where does the environment and climate change come in to the mix?

Stacey: Well, I’ve been outside in nature basically my whole life. And my dad was a water fowl hunter, the California Waterfowl Association has a great wetlands and species preservation program. That was my introduction of sorts into environmentalism. But it was traveling all over the world over the many years of my career that really drew my attention to climate change. I saw firsthand how ski communities were being impacted by snow shortages and how that problem was increasing over time.

GSB: That is something I’ve heard from talking to a number of your friends-competitors. So what spurred you to action?

Stacey: I really have to thank Clif Bar, which sponsored me. They were the impetus. Clif makes it easy for athletes to join the climate conversation. I mean, we live in our own bubbles and to take on a complicated issue like climate change is not easy at all. That’s why their resources allowed me to expand my horizons. Plus they have many other athletes in similar situations.

GSB: When did your relationship with Clif, the company with a quintuple bottom line ethos, start?

Stacey: I met folks from the company back in 2008 and loved what they were all about. But Nature Valley was still the US Ski Team sponsor in that category at the time. But when Nature Valley dropped out and Clif replaced them, the door opened and I walked through.

GSB: They are an incredible company.

Stacey: They really are. I spent a lot of time at their headquarters, talking with sports marketing and other folks. They actually listen to your concerns.

GSB: What a concept!

Stacey: Right?? Clif really educated me on climate change. So I was ready this spring when I went to Washington with Protect Our Winters (POW) for the first time to lobby Members of Congress on climate change from a snow sports perspective.

GSB: How did that go?

Stacey: I hate to say it but I was scared. I’m from a tiny town and I’d never done anything like this. I mean, talking to congressmen and women? Senators? Are you kidding?

GSB: I can understand that to a point. I mean you’ve been in the Olympic downhill. THAT’S scary…

Stacey: To you, maybe. But I’ve been skiing my whole life. No, talking to congress members about climate change was much scarier.

GSB: So how did you do?

Stacey: I was a little shaky at first but became energetic by the end. What turned it around was simply telling stories — stories about the changes we’ve seen to the environment. This turned out to be easy. I mean I’ve seen glaciers recede past chair lifts in some areas. And that change happened within the time span of my career. In the end, winter sports athletes are canaries in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. We see its effects first.

 

Cook_Stacey CCL

Stacey Cook (center), alongside four other U.S. Winter Olympians for their lobbying day on Capitol Hill this spring. From left, it’s Maddie Phaneuf (biathlon), David Wise (halfpipe), Stacey Cook, Arielle Gold (snowboard) and Jessie Diggins (cross-country skiing). Protect Our Winters and CLIF helped organize and fund their trip (Photo credit: Citizens’ Climate Lobby)

 

GSB: With whom did you meet?

Stacey: Senators and House members from states with big winter sports industries. We met Dean Heller, Republican senator from Nevada…

GSB:  …He will soon be an ex-senator as he lost his race to Democrat Jacky Rosen…

Stacey: True. We also met with House members from Colorado, Minnesota and New York. We impressed upon them the economic costs of climate change on their economies. We weren’t making any hard asks but I believe we get them and their staffs more engaged on climate than.

GSB: That’s a great start and then I heard you followed it up by lobbying for the bill in the California state legislature in Sacramento that the state be powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2045.

Stacey: It really was incredible. Ceres, the nonprofit that is helping to transform the economy to build a sustainable future, led the lobbying effort. Clif, Target and Kleiner Perkins

GSB: …The venture capital firm?

Stacey: Yes…They were all involved. I got to learn what big companies are doing around climate change, which was fascinating and impressive. Thing is, Ceres had never used an athlete to help lobby.

GSB: So you were the first? That is SO GREAT!

Stacey: I know! We created a bit of a stir. Having an athlete as part of the team perhaps allowed us to catch the ear of more Assembly members than would have otherwise been the case. And the bill passed the Assembly in late August.

GSB: The California State Senate had already passed its version of the bill back in May 2017 so the Assembly’s passage meant that outgoing Governor Jerry Brown had something to sign. And he did! Congratulations for your role in all this.

 

California SB100

 

Stacey: Thank you, Lew! I can’t wait to see the great things this new law does for the climate, environment and business in my home state.

GSB: What’s up next for you? Running for office?

Stacey: No way! My plans are in flux a bit. For now, I’m continuing to work with Clif, in particular working with other Clif athletes on the environment, helping them get their voices out there. And I will do more with POW. I do know that, whatever my work turns out to be, the environment will be part of it.

 


 

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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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