How climate change is changing sport: Q and A with sport ecologist Madeleine Orr

German triathlete Justus Nieschlag cools off at the Tokyo Games, where some athletes have struggled to beat the heat (photo by Sebastian Gollnow via Getty Images)
German triathlete Justus Nieschlag cools off at the Tokyo Games, where some athletes have struggled to beat the heat (photo by Sebastian Gollnow via Getty Images)

In 2019, a world championship marathon in Doha was scheduled at midnight to avoid the blistering sun. That same year, athletes at the Rugby World Cup in Japan waded through knee-high water to reach the pitch after Typhoon Hagibis dropped 240 mm of water over Tokyo – the wettest storm on record in Japan. 

From no snow winters to sweltering summer heat, sports are feeling the brunt of climate hazards and a slew of health, business and performance risks are going unaddressed, according to sport ecologist Madeleine Orr, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KPE).

Orr shares stories of athletes, teams and events that have been directly affected by climate hazards in her book called Warming up: How climate change is changing sport, which also explores the impact of sport on the planet and suggests actions the sport sector can take to adapt. 

We recently sat down with Orr to discuss her book and research, and ask how she maintains her optimism in the climate fight. Orr will be discussing her findings at the book launch hosted by KPE at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport on May 9.

Madeleine Orr
Photo: Selena Phillips-Boyle

How does one become a sport ecologist? What drew you to this area of research? 

There are many ways to become a sport ecologist; some enter through the sport sciences side – kinesiology, physiology, coaching – others begin in natural resource science, environmental studies, hydrology or climatology and then find their way to sport as the topic. My training combined a bit of both, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to study across different faculties when I was in graduate school to learn how to read, interpret and develop climate models, and also how to measure the impacts of different climate hazards like extreme heat, humidity or wildfire on the athlete’s health and performance, and the business side of sports.

So, how is climate change changing sport, directly and indirectly? Why is that important?

I spend about 200 pages of my book answering that question, but if I had to split it into a few buckets, it would be that extreme heat is impacting athlete health and performance, and the wellbeing of everybody else around sport, including coaches, referees and fans; drought and floods are creating unstable and sometimes unhealthy playing surfaces in different parts of the world; wildfires are wreaking havoc on air pollution across huge swaths of land even far from the flames; and winters are getting shorter and less predictable due to climate change – so winter sports are suffering. 

Climate change is important to think about in the context of sport because every single sport is dependent on clean air, clean water and a safe place to play, and when climate hazards crop up, they can lead to cancelations, delays, damages, health issues and in worst-case-scenarios – death for athletes. 

Conversely, how is sport itself contributing negatively to the environment?

Sport – especially at the elite and professional levels – is organized geographically and based on inter-regional and international travel. The business model of sport is based on tourism: the teams and events want people to come in from out of town, or to spend money at restaurants and other hospitality offerings near the venue. So, when lots of people - teams, referees, media, and fans - move around, it creates a pretty significant carbon footprint. 

And in another sense, sport produces a lot of waste. Think of how many sports products are made from carbon fiber- just to name one example. It’s in our hockey sticks, bikes, bats, boats, skis, racquets, nets, and the list goes on… It’s a great product because it’s strong and light, but it’s also not recyclable, so once a piece of carbon fiber equipment gets even a tiny crack, it becomes unplayable, and in the case of bikes or boats, it has to be retired immediately for safety reasons. 

Another example is sports gear: think of all the clothing and shoes that we buy to support our sport practices – most of it is made from polyester because it wicks sweat. But it’s also made from plastic and very hard to recycle, even if the product you buy says ‘made from recycled materials’. Polyester can generally be recycled once, and then it starts becoming tricky to do it again as the quality of the material degenerates. All this to say, sport produces a lot of stuff that can't be recycled or reused, and that’s a huge source of waste.

What can the sports world do to adapt? Specifically, how can sport organizations, managers, coaches, athletes and fans mitigate the risks associated with climate change and reduce their own environmental footprint?

That's a huge question, and I spent a lot of pages on this in the book. The first big thing is that we have to put safety first, and adopt policies and emergency protocols that keep athletes - and staff, coaches, fans, volunteers - safe when they’re playing sport in unsafe conditions like extreme heat or wildfire smoke. The other piece will be to adapt our facilities and our schedules to avoid the worst of the climate hazards.

To reduce the footprint- the answer usually has to do with reducing travel, whether it’s carpooling to practices with other kids on your team, or taking public transit to pro sport events when you go to watch. But there are lots of other things individuals and sport organizations can do on reuse and recycling that I discuss in the book as well.

What might prevent them from taking action?

There seems to be a perception that climate change is still polarizing and political, but it’s really not. At least, not in Canada, and really not in the U.S. either. The Yale Centre for Climate Communications has done annual surveys on this and finds that the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is happening and agree we need to do more about it. So, we need to start getting past the hesitancy to speak up, and start talking about it more. One way to do that is to make the conversation personal – talk about the ways climate change is impacting you or your organization - and this book points out lots of those impacts - and then move into a conversation about how we keep ourselves and each other safe and healthy and playing sport into the future.

How do you respond to people who say to athlete activists to ‘stay in their lane’?

There are always going to be trolls and haters. I say ignore them. George Monbiot, an environment reporter for The Guardian, once said “we are hypocrites. Every one of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. And I’ll take hypocrisy any day” and that resonates with me. I try to remind athletes or other activists that nobody would pass a purity test on climate action – we’ve all got a carbon footprint, we all have agency to make some choices that are more sustainable but not ALL choices – because some are expensive, and some are just out of our control. So, let yourself off the hook of ‘being perfect’, continue to communicate your concerns to the world, and ignore the trolls.

As an academic and an advocate, what have you found to be the most effective method of raising awareness and gaining broad support for your cause?

Talking about sports. Really, most people have some connection to sport – whether as a fan, or an athlete, or perhaps they have a kid that plays soccer on the weekends. When you talk about climate change and make it about life-or-death stakes for people on the other side of the world, that can be hard for people to relate to. It’s also hard for people to relate to polar bears, or bugs going extinct. But sport is relatable. So, most of my advocacy is about keeping sport and play safe and accessible into the future. Most people have no problem getting on board with that.

Who are your personal heroes in this realm?

Oh, so many! I’m a fan of all the people who are ‘sport insiders’ who work in sport organizations and are having hard conversations with their bosses every day about how sport can do better. I’m also in awe of athletes who lend their platforms to this issue, because I know many get kickback for it. And then in the academic space – Professor Michael Mann at Penn State is on the board of EcoAthletes with me and every time he speaks about this, he’s clear and concise and conveys urgency, without freaking people out, and I think that’s the kind of tone I’m trying to match in my own advocacy.

Is there a particular story of an athlete, team or event that you share in the book that stuck with you more than any other because it really drives the message home? 

I share stories of parents who’ve lost their sons to heat stroke. I share stories of Fijian rugby players who are losing their playing grounds to sea level rise. I share stories of winter athletes suffering more injuries – including concussions – due to poor surface conditions and how that is leading to mental health crises in the winter sports world… so it’s hard to pick just one. There’s no shortage of moving stories. And there were so many more that I got in the course of my research that I wasn’t able to share because it would’ve made the book 400 pages longer if I did. Maybe those will come in the next book.

Finally, how do you maintain your optimism that the world, with help from the sport sector, can reverse the course of climate change?

I don’t think we can afford not to change. We just have to. And I’m under no illusion that sport – especially pro and elite sport – is going to be the first mover on this, but this sector does have a huge platform and potential to inspire not only fans who follow, but all of its supply chains. When sport has used that platform in the past, it’s ignited major public conversations about issues like gender equity -think of Billie Jean King, or the more recent work of women’s soccer teams - and racial injustice - think the 2020 Black Lives Matter boycotts and before that Colin Kaepernick and before that, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Sport has a rich history of drawing attention to big debates and discussions. And I think we can do that again with climate change.