World Athletics President Sebastian Coe highlighted some of the key components of the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy at 'Back to Basics to Build Back Better', part of the sixth IOC Sustainability Session that took place virtually on Friday (6).
Coe, who was invited to deliver the workshop's closing remarks, said that there is genuine belief among all international sporting federations that sport can make a massive contribution in the fight against climate change and "that sustainability does really have to sit at the heart of pretty much everything that we do".
“We are witnessing around us irreversible changes,” Coe said, speaking to representatives of several dozen international federations. “The only way that those changes can be addressed through our own portfolio (as sport federations) is the collaboration of sport and science.”
Using the Covid-19 pandemic as an example, Coe emphasised that there is still time to address climate change, but that we need to act fast and act now.
“The pandemic, was a great disruptor not only for communities and our athletes this year, but for our entire ecosystem across the sport. But it has also shown that man-made measures can make a mitigating set of changes to the whole issue of climate change. For the first time in years, cities like New Delhi, London and Paris saw clear blue skies.”
And its citizens were breathing cleaner air, too. That ties directly into World Athletics’ Air Quality Project, Coe said, a platform the governing body selected in 2018 as one of the six key pillars of its sustainability platform in large part for its obvious connection to the sport. Since its launch, the project has been measuring air quality at a growing number of sporting venues around the world as well as along courses of mass participation events, most recently at the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland, last month. Those studies are being shared and analysed.
"We knew that the health and performance of our athletes and also the communities that so generously host our events were in danger. We quite rightly recognised that we can make a significant difference in the quality of the lives in those communities.”
Coe noted that World Athletics is also working with organisers of its Label Road Race events, assisting with clinical and environmental research into air quality. Air quality, he said, “will become a determining factor in our choice of host cities in the future.”
Combating air pollution is one part of a broader approach as outlined in the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy, a ten-year road map unveiled earlier this year whose goals include transitioning to carbon neutrality across all of its operations and events by 2030.
“We really want to do this to push forward on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” Coe said. “We think we can make a real difference here, both in awareness of the issues, but also in recognising some of our own fragilities across our supply chains, particularly in the delivery of our events."
The ten-year plan he said, "will be an ambitious journey, but at the end of that we want to be best in class in the delivery of sustainable events - because that is what the world is now going to demand of us. I think it is really important that sport is seen as a major contributor to that conversation and sitting at the head of the table in that conversation.”
Coe said that conversation necessarily requires a broader approach that the Sustainability Strategy is attempting to address.
"We don't have all the answers,” he continued, “and I'm not pretending we do, but we do think we can make a big, important step for future generations. We also know that sustainability is not just about the issues around climate change. It's also about our approach to diversity and global equality, because the two really do go hand in hand."
That’s why two of the strategy’s six core pillars, Coe noted, address diversity and global equality.
“While athletics is known for its diversity on the field of play, both in terms of athletes and prize money, we acknowledge that we can do more and will, in making sure our diversity is celebrated more widely and more often and that it is also seen across all of the sport.”
Action will coalesce around the governing body’s sphere of influence, Coe said, “whether it's our own world championships, events that we provide permits or licenses for, and through our 214 Member Federations.”
Athletes will play a crucial role, Coe said, both as advocates and ultimately as judges of the governing body’s efforts.
“The most important asset we have is the advocacy and support of our athletes. Athletes are now a much more demanding stakeholder in this space, probably the most demanding stakeholder we have.
“This whole space has defined what I also call one of the moral hotspots. If you look at the way all young people are now sitting at the crossroads of all the big moral issues, they're sitting there making judgments, not simply about whether we're a sport, or a political party or a charity, or a commercial organisation. They're asking a fundamental question, maybe not an overtly asked question, but thinking about it all the same: do we look like an organisation that reflects the world they live in?
“They will make an assessment about us a sport, they’ll be making judgments about us based on how we are dealing with issues around climate change, and certainly on our approach to diversity and inclusion.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics
Note: You can download the IOC's case study of the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy here.