Sports and climate change
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The future of sports: Why climate change needs intervention now

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Kenya’s world 800 metres record holder and double Olympic champion David Rudisha receives the ‘Director-General’s Health Champion 2024 Award’ from World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Geneva on Mar 26, 2024.

Photo credit: Athletics Kenya

The last time David Rudisha made the headlines in the Swiss and Scandinavian regions was during his rise to record-breaking form as a track athlete.

Sweden catapulted him from world junior champion to his eventual, enviable achievement as world record holder.

Rudisha dominated 800 metres race at the Weltklasse Zurich meeting at the Letzigrund alongside the Athletissima Lausanne, both in Switzerland, and, before that, the Malmo MAI Galan competition in Malmo, Sweden.

Sports Climate change

From left to right: Angeline Kavindu Musili, Kenya’s Ambassador to Sweden, Stockholm Marathon winner Marion Kibor, Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei and Kenya’s world 800 metres record holder and double Olympic champion David Rudisha at the end of Sunday’s Stockholm Marathon.

Photo credit: Athletics Kenya

At the time, he was a one-minute-45-seconds runner, a time he improved gradually to the memorable world record 1:40.91 in the final of the London 2012 Olympic Games, a performance described by the Games Organising Committee President Seb Coe as “the best moment of the London Olympics.”

Rudisha would defend his Olympic title in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, four years later before sliding into early retirement, nagged by incessant injuries, and focusing on his day job as a police officer.

PHOTO | AFP
World 800m record holder David Rudisha on his way to winning the 800m race during the IAAF Diamond League Meeting on Thursday at the Olympic Stadium in Lausanne. Kenya’s Milcah Chemos won the women’s steeplechase while Vincent Chepkok took the men’s 5,000m race.

But besides keeping law and order, the Kenyan track legend has also passionately taken up the role of championing the fight against environmental degradation and climate change, a role that has taken him back to Switzerland and Sweden over the last few days, destinations he was familiar with in his running days.

In Geneva last week, the 35-year-old Rudisha attended the 77th World Health Organisation (WHO) Assembly where he was awarded special recognition by WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

In the citation, the “Director-General’s Health Champions 2024 Award” recognised Rudisha for his “outstanding leadership and action in community health promotion and advocacy on controlling air pollution.”

The WHO boss also appreciated Rudisha’s participation in the fifth edition of the “Walk the Talk: Health for All Challenge” initiative that was also attended by Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha, Kenya’s Ambassador to Geneva Fouzia Abbas, Acting Director General for Health Dr Patrick Amoth and Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei, who is also World Athletics’ Vice President.

Other dignitaries in the Geneva gathering included International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach and Spain’s six-time NBA All-star player Pau Gasol who starred with the Memphis Grizzlies, LA Lakers, Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Milwaukee Bucks at the height of his NBA career.

Also present was Susannah Rodgers, Great Britain’s Paralympics star and winner of 17 international para gold medals and currently an advocate of inclusion and diversity.

Climate Change Sports

Kenya’s world 800 metres record holder and double Olympic champion David Rudisha (left) and Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei (right) attend the 77th World Health Organisation Assembly in Geneva last week, accompanied by Athletics Kenya’s Maxwell Nyamu (background).

Photo credit: Athletics Kenya

Since his retirement, Rudisha has actively joined in Athletics Kenya’s and World Athletics’ efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

On Sunday, the legend spoke to nation.africa, revisiting his athletics journey and embracing his new role in helping in the fight against climate change.

“Climate change is affecting everyone all around the world and the effects are there for us to see – we are all affected in one way or another,” he said on telephone from Stockholm.

“You have seen the recent floods in Kenya, for instance, and also at the Tokyo Olympic Games, the marathon races had to be shifted from Tokyo to Sapporo because the conditions in Tokyo were extraordinarily hot,” he explained.

“Climate change is affecting sports and we have to do something about it,” added Rudisha who started his elite running career under the wings of Irish missionary, Brother Colm O’Connel, while at Elgeyo Marakwet’s St Francis Kimuron Secondary School.

It was while in high school that he featured in his early travels as an athlete, flying to Malmo in 2007 and winning the 800m race at the Malmo MAI Galan meet in 1:45.10.

It was his first international competition after winning the World Junior Championships title (in 1:47.40) at the Chaoyang Sports Centre in Beijing in 2006.

“Coming back to Sweden brings back great memories because it was in Sweden that I won my first race in Europe while still in school at a meeting in the small city of Malmo. It was after this that I was introduced to bigger meetings like Lausanne (Athletissima Lausanne),” he reflected on Sunday.

“To come back here (Sweden) in a different role in sport is great for me because it is sport that built me and I have to give something back to sport.”

Rudisha observes that comparing his days in Iten to current times, the effects of global warming are obvious in Elgeyo Marakwet County.

Sports Climate Change

Left to right: Kenya’s Ambassador to Geneva Fouzia Abbas, Kenya Cabinet Secretary for Health Susan Nakhumicha, Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei and Kenya’s Acting Director General for Health, Dr. Patrick Amoth, at the Athletics Kenya booth during the 5th edition of WHO Walk the Talk, Health for all Challenge activation in Geneva last week.

Photo credit: Athletics Kenya

“Those days, Iten was extremely cold and we could feel it in training, but these days, you can walk around in Iten in the morning in a T-shirt… that is not good for sport and that demonstrates that global warming is real and we have to do something about it for the love of sport,” observed Rudisha who was also a Special Ambassador at this year’s World Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, in March.

At the Geneva gatherings, Athletics Kenya (AK) and the Swedish Athletics Association announced a new initiative to deepen their collaboration on sustainability and climate change action in athletics.

In a press statement, the two federations announced that the initiative “builds on their successful partnership established during the United Nations Stockholm+50 Conference in 2022 and reinforces their commitment as signatories of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Sports for Climate Action Framework.”

The partnership is aimed at promoting sustainability within the global athletics community as part of the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy and is delivered through “Athletics for a better world standard” initiative. 

“In an exciting development, three new air quality sensors have been installed by the Adidas Stockholm Marathon along the Adidas Stockholm marathon route with technical support from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and SLB-analys to monitor air quality during the 2024 Adidas Stockholm Marathon,” the statement announced.

“This marks the second World Athletics sanctioned marathon to feature real-time air quality monitoring, following the Nairobi City Marathon in 2022 and 2023.”

“We are very pleased that for the first time, we will be able to monitor air quality conditions during this year’s Adidas Stockholm marathon,” Axel Lönnqvist from the Marathongruppen, the organisers of the Adidas Stockholm Marathon, said on Saturday.

“This will give assurance to our runners on the air quality conditions during the race.”

The President of the Swedish Athletic Association, Johan Storåkers, who is also the Deputy Mayor of the Municipality Sundbyberg with special responsibility for sports and culture, noted: “I am pleased to support this initiative on air quality monitoring to make Adidas Stockholm marathon meet World athletics standards and thank Athletics Kenya for the collaboration.”

In their aggressive campaign to monitor air quality, Athletics Kenya, UNEP, and SEI’s Africa Centre deployed air quality sensors in 14 sports stadia and facilities across six African countries over the past three years.

The initiative provides real-time air pollution data to sports administrators and city authorities, enhancing the health and safety of athletes and spectators alike.

Athletics Kenya and the Swedish Athletic Association hope to inspire sustainability actions by other athletic federations across the world.

“This is a milestone for the two federations (Swedish Athletics and Athletics Kenya) to champion and provide sports leadership on air quality, climate and environmental actions. We are also happy to join in witnessing the Stockholm super Athletics weekend comprising of the Adidas Stockholm marathon, Wanda Stockholm Diamond League and mini-marathon,” Tuwei said after, alongside Rudisha and AK official Maxwell Nyamu, also witnessing Kenya dominate Saturday’s Stockholm Marathon races.

Kenya’s Marion Kibor (two hours, 31 minutes and 46 seconds) won the women’s race with Ivyne Jeruto (2:34:01) finishing third behind Ethiopia’s Sifan Melaku (2:32:54).

Another Kenyan, Lina Jepkemoi (2:37:44) was fifth.

It was a clean sweep in the men’s race with Kenyans occupying the top five positions through Fredrick Kibii (2:14:17), Robert Ngeno (2:14:30), Bernard Kipkorir (2:15:41), Kennedy Kipyeko (2:15:53) and Abednego Cheruiyot (2:16:46).

Angeline Kavindu Musili, Kenya’s Ambassador to Sweden with accreditation to Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, was also present to celebrate the success of the Kenyan athletes.

Prof. Måns Nilsson, Executive Director of the Stockholm Environment Institute, said current calamities point to the need for a more aggressive campaign in the fight against climate change.

“In recent times, we have seen more frequent climate hazards, including flooding in East Africa and Brazil, and record-breaking temperatures leading to summer heatwaves, all signs that the impact of climate change is now more visible than before. This calls for urgent action, and the sports community must be at the forefront of action,” he said.

This initiative between AK, UNEP, SEI and the Swedish represents a significant step forward in integrating sustainability and climate action into the world of athletics, setting a precedent for other sports organizations worldwide, the officials in Stockholm noted.