Sport and the climate crisis: time for the travelling circus to just stay put
How long can sport, like Hollywood, continue to wave away the contradictions between its activities and its supposed ideals?
A view of the Australian Tennis centre and MCG from Eureka Tower as smoke and haze from bushfires hangs over Melbourne. Photograph: David Crosling/EPA
Someone once told me about a film actor who had developed a powerful ecological conscience, and in this spirit he bought every cast and crew member on his latest production a reusable coffee cup.
As the shoot wore on, he’d make spot checks to see if they were using them. This was a source of some irritation but more amusement to the crew, who’d observe darkly to each other that – with the best will in the world on the old coffee cup front – they were literally MAKING A MOVIE HERE. There are few more disposably indulgent, bigger footprint projects than creating a second-tier romantic comedy (unless it’s maybe failing to be able to tell the Spider-Man story in less than two and three quarter hours).
It’s hard not to think about such ironies as far as sport and the climate crisis go, and it will be even harder as the Australian Open gets under way this week. Already, the current stop on the sport’s globetrotting tour has seen bushfire smoke cause qualifying games to be delayed and a player to withdraw. Meanwhile, Roger Federer has become the subject of gathering criticism from climate activists including Greta Thunberg for taking sponsorship from Credit Suisse, which is heavily linked to the fossil-fuel industry.
For once in his serenely unruffled career, Federer seems to be in something of a rearguard action, issuing emollient statements about where Credit Suisse have told him they’re going. Like many sports stars, he will donate to the Australian bushfires appeal, as well as play in a charity exhibition match on the eve of the tournament, along with stars such as Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.
Whether this sort of thing will ultimately be sufficient to justify his sponsorship relationships – and indeed, those of other stars – is unclear. Sports stars being encouraged to cut ties with their sponsors is fairly uncharted territory. Hitherto, it has mostly been the other way round. Either way round would, of course, be a new one on Federer, whose apparently faultless career and personal conduct down the years has never seen anyone wish to end their association with him.
The bigger question is how long sport, like Hollywood, can continue to hand-wave away the contradictions between its activities and its supposed ideals. While some aspects of the sport circus will always be globally itinerant, the question of whether others really need to be should now come closer to the fore.
Some aspects of the sport circus will always be globally itinerant – whether others need to be should now come to the fore
With Olympic bids in the news again, must we forever insist that a different country builds vast amounts of venue space and infrastructure every four years for this event, or the winter Games, or many of the other things regarded as indispensably itinerant, certainly to the pockets of the corrupt individuals who benefit from them?
Arguably not. And yet for all its fake idealism, the IOC has yet again this week revealed itself as much more concerned with micropolicing potential political statements of individual athletes in Tokyo later this year than looking to its own political statements.
The most above-politics statement the IOC could possibly make would be to announce that henceforth the Olympics would always take place in, say, Greece, where they originated. Then instead of lying about benefits to the host nations, and ignoring the needless environmental damage, they could acknowledge that most people watch these things on telly and couldn’t care less where they are held.
If they really are committed to building a better world, as their goals specifically state, the Olympic movement could use the climate emergency to truly lead the way.
F1, Saudi Arabia and ‘societal norms’
“We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality,” wrote Thomas Babington Macaulay, who fortunately died before he could behold Formula One in one of theirs. News that F1 is close to signing a deal for a Saudi Grand Prix is an enduring reminder that nothing the sport says about anything at all other than money should ever be taken remotely seriously.
Do recall that it was not even two years ago that F1’s owners, Liberty Media, were indulging in a bout of public self-congratulation for getting rid of the scantily clad grid girls in the wake of the #MeToo movement’s explosion. “We feel this custom does not resonate with our brand values,” sniffed F1’s commercial managing director at the time, “and is clearly at odds with modern-day societal norms”.
To the society of Saudi Arabia then, one of the most brutally repressive on earth, where women were permitted to drive only 18 months ago, allowed to travel without permission from a male relative only six months ago, and where women’s rights activists are imprisoned in solitary confinement and reportedly tortured. And so on, and so on, at great length. That said, the Saudi ruling tyrants are very rich. So of course Formula One is going to race there, and of course we must expect them to try and make further hay about how they’re leading the way opening up a new modern era for the kingdom, or something.
And yet . . . What a load of old bollocks. Indeed, all of a sudden, who can really say grid girls represent some retrograde force of oppression? Let’s face it – bikini-clad women are very much against Saudi Arabia’s “societal norms”, to quote a phrase. After all, the presence of a bikini-clad lovely would, on a Saudi circuit, be regarded as an act of vast political defiance, as opposed to something that lots of powerful businessmen are going to decide is shameful because it makes them look good for five minutes while Harvey Weinstein’s in the news.