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Olympians should be climate activists

Jena Lococo
Progressive Perspectives (TNS)

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are right around the corner. Even though the torch is not yet lit, the Olympic Games have already thrust China’s human rights abuse record into the spotlight, with the United States leading a diplomatic boycott against the sporting event, the first since 1980.

But human rights are not the only frightening shadow hanging over this year’s Olympics. There is also the issue of climate change, as rising temperatures and extreme weather will soon begin changing where competitions can be located.

Last year’s Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo were a prime example of how climate change is impacting sports. Dubbed “The Rings of Fire,” these were the hottest games ever. Athletes exerted themselves to the point of heat exhaustion, and some events had to be relocated or rescheduled due to extreme heat conditions.

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Researchers have predicted that by 2050, only one former Winter Olympics location may be cold enough for winter sports. The lack of snow is already a reality that affects the games today; in fact, this year’s Olympics will completely rely on man-made snow, which is carbon intensive to create because it requires large amounts of water and electricity.

As much as sports serve as an escape for fans, what goes on in the arena has always tended to reflect what is going on in the world around it.

In the 1930s, track athlete Jesse Owens defied Adolf Hitler’s “master race” agenda by competing in the Berlin Olympic Games and winning four gold medals. In 1968, U.S. Olympic champions John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a black-gloved salute in accepting their medals as a sign of solidarity with oppressed Black people around the world.

Athletes hold a tremendous amount of influence. Soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo is the most-followed individual on Instagram, with nearly 360 million followers — that’s nearly 5% of the world’s population. What if he spoke up about ways to address climate change?

Olympic athletes are not engineers or climate scientists, and we should not rely on them to conduct climate modeling or analyze weather patterns. But they are immersed in various environments for their sport, seeing patterns emerge that they can and should comment on. They spend their time training on the snow that is melting, oceans that are acidifying and heat that is intensifying.

Athletes witness these changes firsthand and can share what they are seeing to ignite change in others. If your court is burning, you cannot just “shut up and dribble,” as basketball great LeBron James was told to do by a TV commentator after he discussed racial issues in an interview.

U.S. Olympic Team Athletes board a Delta Airlines charter for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Los Angeles International Airport on Jan. 27, 2022, in Los Angeles, California. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOPC/TNS)

Luckily, organizations like EcoAthletes are partnering with athletes to better equip them to take the lead on climate action. “The world is in a crisis,” the group says on its website, taking up a sports metaphor: “It is late in the 4th quarter and we are losing to climate change. The science says the clock is ticking: Humanity has until 2030 to reduce carbon emissions by 45% to avoid the most calamitous impacts of climate change. Good news is the technology largely exists to get us there.”

We look to athletes as role models and sources of inspiration. They test the limits of human boundaries and are symbols of strength, resilience and the ability to overcome obstacles. Athletes have an opportunity to continue this inspiration off of the field as climate leaders. It’s time fans encourage them to seize it.

— Jena Lococo is a public voices fellow on the climate crisis with the OpEd Project in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.