Warming up: U of T researcher explores the impact of climate change on sports

In her new book, sport ecologist Madeleine Orr explores how everything from sweltering heat to unpredictable winter weather is affecting sports - and how the sporting world itself is contributing to the changes
Runner pouring water on 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, the sporting world is feeling the effects of climate hazards and a slew of health, business and performance risks are going unaddressed, says sport ecologist Madeleine Orr, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education (KPE).

Photo of Maddy Orr, sitting on bench.
(photo by Selena Phillips-Boyle)

In her book Warming up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport, Orr shares stories of athletes, teams and events that have been directly affected by climate hazards, explores the impact of sport on the planet and suggests actions the sport sector can take to adapt. 

Writer Jelena Damjanovic recently sat down with Orr – who will be at a book launch at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport on May 9 – to chat about her book, research and how she maintains her optimism in the climate fight.

What drew you to this area of research? 

There are many ways to become a sport ecologist. Some enter [the field] 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 athletes’ health and performance, and the business side of sports.

How is climate change changing sport, directly and indirectly? 

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 well-being 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. When climate hazards crop up, they can lead to cancelations, delays, damages, health issues and, in worst-case-scenarios, death for athletes. 

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 fibre, 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 fibre 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 is 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.

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.

Reducing the environmental footprint 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 with regards to reuse and recycling that I discuss in the book as well.

How do you maintain your optimism?

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.

Finally, 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 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 and 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.

Read the full interview at the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education

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