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Sports celebrities and environmental advocacy
By Eric Falt Spokesperson/Director of Communications, UNEP

The year was 1968. A year of new beginnings. At the Olympic Games in Mexico, Bob Beamon astonished an entire generation with a historic jump that would remain in the record books for twenty-three years.

For their part, two other athletes made a decisive jump into politics, a realm few sports figures had entered before. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fresh from winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200 metre race, made a silent but stunning political statement—heads bowed and fists raised in a gesture that most of us still remember vividly today.

Their act was met with such outrage that they were suspended from their national team and banned from the Olympic Village. Many thought that their stance had no place in the supposedly apolitical Olympic Games, even though Muhammad Ali –formerly known as Cassius Clay—had paved the way for them.

1968 proved to be a watershed year for sport and politics. That same year, the United Nations General Assembly requested all States and organizations “to suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organizations or institutions in South Africa which practise apartheid.”

Three years later, in 1971, the General Assembly adopted a special resolution on apartheid in sports, calling on all sports organizations to uphold the Olympic principle of non-discrimination, expressing regret that some sports organizations had continued exchanges with racially selected South African teams, and commending the international campaign against apartheid in sports.

Since then, many athletes have taken strong political positions and the Olympic Games have sometimes themselves become hostage to politics. One would only need mention the events of 1980 and those of 1984, which pitted one world against another.

On an individual level, athletes have become a staple of the political scene, and have begun to use their achievements in sport and their celebrity status to make powerful political statements. To use another leaf from the apartheid book, I should quote Vijay Amritraj, the Indian tennis player who took his country to the finals of the Davis Cup in 1974 and 1987 and who was designated in 2001 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a UN Messenger of Peace.

Speaking in 1988 at the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, he said: “Sport is big business now and not just a game any more. Sportsmen and women must realize the world over that with fame and fortune come an incredible responsibility which may affect the lives of people in different countries…. Over the years as a professional, I have been made several offers including vast sums of money to play exhibition matches in South Africa which I have declined. I feel that every individual, important or unimportant, artist, diplomat, professional or sportsman, has a certain responsibility towards his fellow men and if I may add, hopefully, a conscience. It is thus up to each of us to contribute in our own way towards a better world—a world of equality, of dignity, of freedom.”

In fact, many world class athletes have become full time politicians. In the United Kingdom, middle distance running hero Sebastian Coe, who won two gold and two silver medals in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, has pursued an active career in politics as a Member of Parliament for the past ten years. In France, Guy Drut—the gold medal winner of the 110 metre hurdles in the 1976 Olympics—later became a Minister of Sports in his country, paving the way for Jean-Francois Lamour, the current Minister of Sports and himself a former Olympic champion in sabre fencing in 1984 and 1988. Of course, the list would not be complete without the soccer legend Pele, himself anointed Minister of Sports in Brazil in 1994.

While the association between sport and straight-out politics remains sometimes confused, and acceptable standards of behaviour for athletes are still unclear, their involvement in political causes is now a fairly frequent staple of the evening newscasts and daily newspapers.

In fact, I would like to put to you today that, 35 years after the events of Mexico and as Vijay Amritraj advocated, it is now an accepted reality that sport celebrities can, and even should, be vocal on important political issues.

The question that I would, therefore, like to explore with you today is the following: While the issue of the environment is in itself a political issue, are we—in light of the growing concern for environmental issues among civil society members—about to see the attention of sports celebrities shift more squarely to the environment? Is the issue of the environment about to become a “cause celebre” for athletes the world over? Why has it not already really exploded into their consciousness? Should we even encourage them, as we debate this week how to better link sport and the environment?

There are but a few examples of athletes vocally expressing their views about the environment. Canadian water polo player Kaliya Young, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle in September 2000 (“Why I am skipping the Olympics”), says she gave up her ultimate goal and, six years on, her national team because she had become “deeply troubled by the corporate sell out of the (Games), by the hollowness of Olympic environmental claims.” She mentioned the fact that the environment became the third pillar of the Olympic movement in 1994, along with culture and athletics, and referred to Agenda 21, but denounced our statements as mere grandstanding.

Kaliya Young wrote: “The Olympic movement is a ‘light’ green movement that has raised some public awareness of environmental issues and environmentally friendly initiatives. The Olympic villages use solar water-heating, do water remediation and recycling. While these initiatives address the technical problems of being environmentally friendly, they do not address the truly fundamental value system changes that are needed to prevent global environmental disaster.”

Very few people read what Kaliya Young had to express. She was active in a minor sport and did not command the attention of millions.

So, who among mega-celebrities chooses or accepts to talk about the environment or related issues? Well, I have certainly looked hard over the past few months. Aside from a vague reference in Martina Navratilova’s website that she “loves animals very much” and supports the organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) as well as Save the Rhino, I have found virtually nothing. Michael Schumacher’s numerous endorsements of commercial companies would probably put him in conflict with any environmental cause he could ever endorse. And environmentalists would probably never want to be associated with Mike Tyson, who once earned 75 million dollars in one year. So who?

Well, there are a few signs of hope. Two weeks ago, in Tokyo, UNEP launched a picture book prepared with our partners of the Global Sports Alliance during the second edition of our biannual Global Forum for Sport and the Environment.

In this book, entitled Vital Messages, some twenty world class athletes—mostly Japanese but also including the likes of US cycling legend Greg Lemond and tennis player Martina Seles—offer simple thoughts about the need to protect the environment. Japanese surfer Ryu Nakamura, for instance, is quoted as saying: “All I want is a big wave to ride, but not if it came from a melted glacier.”

UNEP also works very closely with the Clean Up The World campaign, which mobilizes every year some 40 million people across 120 countries and aims at ridding the world of the all too familiar sight of garbage. Clean Up the World was the brainchild of Ian Kiernan, an accomplished sailor, who represented Australia in 1986 and 1987 in the gruelling BOC challenge—a nine month round the world yacht race. Ian Kiernan is an outspoken and well known figure in the South Pacific, who has accomplished wonders for the cause of the environment with little budget but heaps of enthusiasm.

In the end, there is one sport celebrity who clearly stood out for his advocacy efforts in favour of the environment. Like Ian Kiernan, also from the world of sailing, he dominated his sport for more than a decade, twice securing the American’s Cup—sailing’s most prestigious trophy—for his native New Zealand, in 1995 and 2000. He also won the Whitbread Round, the World Race in 1989 and took the Jules Verne Trophy in 1994 by sailing non-stop around the globe on a Catamaran in 75 days.

Yes, I am talking about Sir Peter Blake, who was killed by pirates on the Amazon River only five months after UNEP appointed him as its Goodwill Ambassador.

The environment was the other passion of Sir Peter, and he wanted it to be known. At the time of his murder, he was leading a worldwide expedition to monitor global warming and pollution on the seas. UNEP was supporting him with the latest information and scientific advice, helping deliver compelling environmental stories to millions around the world through the “Blakexpeditions” television programmes and internet site.

Sir Peter died tragically on 5 December 2001—almost two years ago to this day. For UNEP and for the cause we are discussing today, nobody has picked up his mantle. The last entry in his diary, written on the very Wednesday of his death, read: “We want to restart people caring for the environment as it must be cared for. We want to make a difference.” Last year, the International Olympic Committee honoured the late Sir Peter by posthumously presenting him with the IOC Olympic Order.

As you see, however, the examples that we can quote are few and far between. The better known global sport celebrities have not really begun to be involved and have not started to harness their celebrity status to attract positive attention onto important environmental issues. Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane are prominently involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but mega-star David Beckham has never spoken on the issue of the environment. Tiger Woods is very conservative about the public questions he addresses.

I searched in vain for any association Cathy Freeman, one of the most impressive Olympic Athletes of recent times on and off the track, may have had with the environment. She made a powerful political statement of the 1994 Commonwealth Games when she took her 400 metre victory lap with the Aboriginal flag draped over her shoulders, but we do not seem to have interested her in wildlife protection or global warming.

I personally think that we ought to be more persuasive and daring in working with sport personalities in defence of the environment. We are all inspired and encouraged by the example of Pal Schmitt, Team epee gold medallist at the Games in Mexico in 1968 and in Munich in 1972, and now Chairman of the Sport and Environment Commission of the IOC. More than anyone in the Olympic movement, he has risen from the ranks of the sporting world to become an effective advocate for the environment.

We need him and others like him to speak out. I invite all of you today to pick up the environmental torch and run with it. Run with it as fast as you can. Carry it as high as you can.

Thank you very much.