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Opinion: The climate crisis – sport is victim and sinner

Joscha Weber Bonn 9577
Joscha Weber
January 14, 2020

At the Australian Open, a player struggles to breathe because of air pollution while Greta Thunberg challenges Roger Federer. Sport must face up to its responsibilities with regards to the climate, writes Joscha Weber.

slowenische Tennisspielerin Dalila Jakupovic
Image: imago images Imaginechina

Dalila Jakupovic is gasping for breath. After a rally, the Slovenian bends over in pain during a qualifying match for the Australian Open against the Swiss Stefanie Vögele. Jakupovic's struggles can be clearly heard through the microphones on the edge of the court.

Then it gets worse. She has to kneel down, hold her hand in front of her pained face and crouch, curled up on the blue floor of Court 3. Coaches and organizers rush to help, but there is little they can do except talk and calm her down. Finally the umpire announces that Jakupovic cannot continue. "Game, set and match Stefanie Vögele." It is the first retirement at the Australian Open due to the poor air quality caused by the country's devastating bush fires.

The climate crisis has reached international sport. Beyond a few appeals for donations, PR campaigns and the interjections of a few climate activists, the sporting world has done little more than take note of the issue.

Weber Joscha Kommentarbild App
DW Sports editor Joscha Weber

But it is logical that the consequences of climate change and the discussion about the sustainable use of resources are now also affecting sports — after all, top athletes are not only victims of the climate crisis, as they are now in Melbourne, but are also partly responsible for it.

Athletes jet to competitions, PR appointments or training camps around the world. Big cars are part of the lifestyle of many sports icons. And now some are having to justify their sponsors. Climate activist Greta Thunberg has told tennis star Roger Federer to "wake up" via a retweet, because his sponsor Credit Suisse is financing industrial firms that rely on fossil fuels.

Athletes are heroes - but with special responsibilities

Federer has probably never thought much about this connection before, and many professional athletes will feel the same way. But that is exactly what is about to change. All over the world, young people in particular are demanding a more thoughtful approach to the environment, from everyone.

The world of top-class sport is now particularly exposed, even if its stars are otherwise celebrated as heroes. A high degree of integrity is expected of those heroes and if one of them errs through doping or cheating, the outcry is great. The same may now be the case for the environment. The public sometimes expects more from great sports stars than politicians.

The great popularity of sportsmen and women brings astronomically high salaries and advertising revenues. The price for this is the burden of always having to behave in a correct, socially desirable manner.

Sport can and must do more for the climate. If athletes travel to their competitions as often as possible in a climate-friendly way, many of their fans will imitate this. When sporting events with their huge numbers of visitors do without plastic cups, use energy from renewable sources or support climate-friendly local transport, this has a noticeable effect.

Protecting athletes better

And the organizers of sporting events must do more to protect athletes. Many sports take place in the open air and some athletes are already criticizing the Australian Open for the fact the Grand Slam is even going ahead despite the considerable air pollution caused by the fires.

So far there is no sign that major sporting events will be cancelled due to the bushfires in Australia; neither the Australian Open in Melbourne nor the Tour Down Under cycling race around Adelaide. The financial pressure is apparently so great that the events are being held despite the worrying circumstances. As almost always in sports, the show must go on.