It’s time to act, Rudisha says as athletes feel the heat of climate change

Seb Coe enjoys a light moment

World Athletics President Seb Coe (centre) enjoys a light moment with Athletics Kenya president Jack Tuwei (from left to right), London Olympics 800m Champion David Rudisha, Africa 100m champion Ferndinard Omanyala and Youths, Sports and Arts Cabinet Secretary Ababu Namwamba after addressing a press conference at Weston Hotel in Nairobi on January 05, 2023.

Photo credit: Chris Omollo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Osano argues that cancelling an event as it happened in Tokyo comes with an economic cost which is why countries should rethink and include sports in their climate discourses.

An hour-long press briefing ends with a performance from a US-based artist –AY Young, whose music is a firebrand buzzing with a message on the need to save our planet.

It is a sports briefing, at a climate conference, not an Olympics or the Union of European Football Association (UEFA) championship. Sportspeople are here to discuss climate change.

A towering top dog –David Rudisha, is seated in the front row donning a Kenyan athletics jersey. He was one of the panellists speaking on the Sports for Climate Action side event. Brushing shoulders with athletes like himself, and being in the same space with UEFA bosses driving the sustainability agenda, Rudisha and colleagues had one message to take home –it is time to act.

When the 800 metres world record holder stood from his seat to step out of Action Arena Al-Hur Zone in Dubai’s Expo City, people were already waiting for him in the aisle leading to the exit of the room.

His fans stopped him just a few steps from his seat, and for 20 minutes, he patiently listened to anyone who cared to talk to him. It was a starstruck moment for the people in the room who knew about him. Some wanted just a photo. Others, his contact. Others just to have a close look at him and shake his hands. He is easy-going, so he accepted all the offers, including our exclusive interview with him.

The Kilgoris-born two-time Olympic champion comes from a community that has been adversely affected by climate change. When he speaks about the need for climate action, his vibration is punctuated with deep-rooted impacts of climate change that he has seen in his community; at home and on the track.

While Rudisha did not race at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games that were held in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he told the “Nation” that he could feel the displeasure his fellow athletes had when the event took place during record-breaking heat temperatures. Some commentators said it was the hottest Olympics on record as the temperatures were about 32.2 degrees Celsius on average.

Scientists publishing their work in the BMJ journal found out that about one in 100 Olympic athletes suffered heat-related illness.

“We believe this was due to the risk reduction of heat-related illness, such as adequate prevention and proper treatment,” shows the study.

Another study published in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine showed that the Tokyo Games should serve as a wake-up call to change the conventional attitude towards dealing with global warming.

“Climate change is our reality. Transparent, inclusive, and practical strategies against heat should be shaped since severe weather conditions are becoming significant issues to all concerned in the Olympics and Paralympic games,” shows the study.

As studies talk about reality, Rudisha says his voice would bring change because he has lived the reality.

“I am here because of how climate change affects sports, but I also come from a community that is largely affected by the impact of climate change. We have not contributed so much to what is happening but the effects are here with us. We are here today to address that and to tell the world that something needs to be done,” he tells the “Nation”.

This year has been touted to be the hottest on record, and Rudisha says this will have, and already has had, a toll on athletes because of the unbearable heat.

“When it comes to training and preparation, temperature change is an issue. We have seen that even in high altitudes we now have high temperatures. This is a critical concern because we still want to perform well and break more records,” he explains.

He says that by virtue of sports being global, when stakeholders meet at climate conferences then the voice of solidarity shows the impact it has on them.

“We are also advocating for green energy because that will reduce carbon emissions,” he says.

In the country, Athletics Kenya, working with the Stockholm Environment Institute has installed air quality sensors in some stadia to ensure that should a sports event like a marathon be in the country, the participants are not affected by pollution.

Air pollution also affects sports people, as athletics Kenya, we have installed air quality sensors in most of the stadia to collect data and see that athletes.

Speaking to the Nation, Susan Kamau, Chief Administrative Officer, said that the air quality sensors help as an early warning system to know the best days to hold events when the air quality is good and that athletes train in a conducive environment.

As a member of the World Athletics, Kenya became the first signatory of the United Nations Climate Framework for Sports Action in 2021.

Dr Philip Osano, Centre Director for the Stockholm Environment Institute explains that there is a need for the Sports Federation to be in a climate meeting because sports events have been accused of being major contributors to climate change.

“Sports actors must now start to reduce their emissions. For countries like Kenya and Africa, the impact of climate change and sports is not becoming more visible. When we have high temperatures, it affects the ability of athletes to run to their best potential,” he said.

He explains that the International Olympic Committee which brings together all sports brings together all sports now has adopted a sustainability strategy, and there are guidelines for all sports federations to take action when it comes to climate change.

It is now a requirement that when they have any sporting activities, they have to put in measures to reduce the emission level of the sports.

He tells the Nation that sports people are on the receiving end of health impacts of climate change such as heat waves and air pollution-related complications.

Osano argues that cancelling an event as it happened in Tokyo comes with an economic cost which is why countries should rethink and include sports in their climate discourses.