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‘We’re looking at losing 20% of Olympic nations’: how the climate crisis is changing sport
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‘We’re looking at losing 20% of Olympic nations’: how the climate crisis is changing sport

The drive from the tiny Eldoret airport to the town of Iten in the south-west corner of Kenya takes about an hour. It’s a winding unlit road with few road signs: you need to know where you’re going to get there. The town’s population isn’t known – there hasn’t been a census in more than a decade – but the local ­municipal authority estimates it around 56,000, up from 40,024 in 2009.

Roughly 35% live below the poverty line. And yet, a sign on the only paved road into town calls this the Home of Champions, owing to its phenomenal athletic success. This corner of Kenya has produced 14 men’s and nine women’s Boston Marathon winners since 1991, who have brought home 22 and 14 wins, respectively. They have also won 13 of 18 gold medals in the 3,000m steeplechase at the World Athletics Championships since the event was introduced in 1983.

Nearby, in Kaptagat, a rural town less than one hour’s drive from Iten, some of the fastest distance runners in the world live and train. These towns are similar. Life here is simple; there are few distractions, running is revered, long clay roads provide perfect running surfaces, and at 2,400 meters above sea level, they offer ideal high-altitude training conditions. But these conditions may not last.

Throughout east Africa, the most obvious climate hazards are drought, extreme heat, floods in some parts, and associated biodiversity loss. According to professor Vincent Onywera, the vice-chancellor for research, innovation and outreach at Kenyatta University, who has studied Kenyan runners most of his professional career, the climate crisis could seriously affect injury trends and performance. “I expect injuries to go up as droughts make clay roads harder than pavement and the impact on knees and hips takes its toll.”

Runners are having to alter the timings of training sessions in Iten, Kenya, due to the severe heat.View image in fullscreen

The president of Athletics Kenya, Jackson Tuwei, is worried about more than just injury risks. He’s worried about participation overall. “If young athletes are hungry, they won’t run. If the air quality is bad because it is dusty and smoky, they won’t run. If there is no shade because trees have been cut down and there’s no water to drink or shower with they won’t run.” Drought will cut off the pipeline of athletes in Kenya unless solutions are found soon.

Heat is making things worse. Tuwei named this as his first concern for Kenyan athletes. “When we are running in the daytime it can be extremely hot and so sometimes we have to change our programmes to run in the evenings or very early in the morning. We have witnessed high temperatures here in recent years, forcing us to change our schedules for events.”

Sleep is another casualty of heat. Onywera stressed that a healthy sleeping schedule is critical to ­runners’ success, but that warmer nights across the country are ­shifting performance outcomes for some. “You can see the impacts of heat at night-time. Concentration dips, motivation is low, energy levels are low.”

Athletics Kenya is worried about how the climate crisis shapes the future of its country, let alone its sport. And yet there is little a ­country like Kenya can do to improve its ­climate outcomes as it contributes 0.05% of global emissions. Even if ­significant reductions in emissions are achieved, it will barely move the needle. So Athletics Kenya is ­choosing a different tack: educating its top ­athletes – some of the nation’s most visible people – to be spokespeople for the climate emergency.

“When our runners go out and do well,” Tuwei said. “We want them to also talk about the environment because it is affecting us here, it is affecting them and maybe people will listen.”

Pakistan, another former British colony, is facing a different set of ­challenges. The summer of 2022 brought devastating floods that killed nearly 2,000 people and caused ­trillions of rupees in damage and loss. The floods were attributed to a toxic cocktail of glacier melt – Pakistan has the most glaciers outside the polar regions – and heavy monsoons, both linked to the climate crisis.

The devastating floods in the Sindh province, Pakistan, 2022.View image in fullscreen

Ali Athar Nakash Brohi is the president of Mehran Football Club in Thatta, Pakistan, in the heavily affected region of Sindh. His club was spared from the worst of the floods, which is why he was still online and able to talk to me.

Mehran FC has grounds that are slightly raised, so they remained dry, attracting dozens of families who sought shelter on their pitches for several weeks, staying in tents. “Some of our members who live in the ­villages outside Thatta lost ­everything. They’re the ones that came here to stay on the grounds.”

When sports programming resumed months later, it was a slog. “It took many months to get our fields back in order and to start sports again. It was really challenging for us because everyone is completely disturbed and everything we do is run by volunteers. Nobody has mental energy after floods.”

Pakistan wore shirts in support of flood victims during the T20 match against England in Karachi in September 2022.View image in fullscreen

In the weeks after the disaster, aid money poured in from foreign ­governments and charities. An estimated £7bn in relief funds reached the country. But with more than 30 million people displaced, that is only £240 per person; hardly enough to provide healthy food, clean water, housing, healthcare to cholera patients and comfort to the victims, even if every dollar was used ­effectively. Yet, after the first two months, aid fatigue ­settled in and the initial outpouring of money  ebbed.

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The best the country could do was to have its most visible figures, cricket players, keep talking about the floods. Armbands were worn by professional athletes playing abroad, then special kits were created for the national cricket team. The country’s top athletes also began donating their earnings to the flood victims in an effort to help and the National Stadium allowed affected locals to attend the Pakistan v England cricket match for free in an effort to boost spirits.

In some places, sports are disappearing entirely due to rising tides. Low-lying Pacific islands are particularly at risk. In Fiji, the white sand in Namatakula, a small town of 600 residents on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, is being swallowed by the ocean.

For reasons unknown, this small beach community has produced some of the best rugby players in Fiji’s illustrious ­history. Lote Tuqiri, who represented Australia in rugby league and rugby union and Fiji in rugby league, and Tevita Kuridrani, who has 60 caps for Australia in rugby, took their first tackles here.

Ratu Filise Rugby Club (top) in the village behind the eroded beach in Namatakula, Fiji.View image in fullscreen

Kuridrani told me: “Rugby is a very important sport to our village community and the beaches were the places where we used to play rugby as young kids and where the men would do their rugby training. With the beaches quickly eroding, it is impacting the community, especially with the rugby training programme. Kids are growing up knowing they won’t have the same experience and luxury of playing on the beaches as we used to do growing up. And that could impact a young kid’s dream of being a rugby star.”

Like runners in Kenya, rugby players in Fiji enjoy special status in the country’s social fabric. Fiji is a rugby nation, with 80,000 registered players – more than any other country per capita – and the only two Olympic gold medals in the men’s sevens game. Theirs is a quick and powerful style of play, which the national teams have repeatedly attributed to the logic of vaku vanua, “the way of the land”.

Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport by Madeleine Orr publishes on 9 May

The beach erosion is so severe that managed retreat is now being proposed to Namatakula residents as the primary adaptation option – not just to save sport, but to save lives and livelihoods. The plan is to move away from the rising sea level and rebuild the town further inland to preserve the culture, local economy, and way of life. For the rugby players who train on Fiji’s beaches, the loss will be deeply felt.

At the Sport Positive Summit in October 2022, Julie Duffus, senior manager of Sustainability at the International Olympic Committee, told the audience that “I work with 206 countries around the world. And so many of them now are ­witnessing these impacts … by the time we get to 2030, we’re looking at losing about 20% of our Olympic nations. Literally, gone.”

This is an edited extract from Warming Up: How Climate Change is Changing Sport by Madeleine Orr publishes on 9 May (Bloomsbury) in hardback, ebook and audiobook. Available to order now. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source: theguardian.com