Whether it is melting snowfields, polluted waterways, sweltering temperatures or suffocating air pollution, many sports are already feeling the heat from climate change.
Athletes often experience first-hand the devastating impact to the environment, and more and more are joining the front line of the battle to save the planet.
Environmental sustainability has always been a key consideration of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) since its inauguration in Singapore in 2010, even providing participants with the chance to calculate carbon emissions generated by their training sessions and learn how they can contribute positively to sustainable development in their communities.
The YOG were seen as an opportunity to engage with young athletes on the importance of environmental issues, providing fun and interesting activities to encourage them to become environmental stewards.
Many of those who took part in the YOG have since been inspired to take a stand against issues such as global warming, pollution, waste and biodiversity loss, with athletes uniquely placed to use their platforms to educate and motivate fans and act as sustainability role models.
Tennis star Daria Saville - "I try to do as much as I can"
Among those using their voice for the benefit of the environment is tennis player Daria Saville, born Gavrilova, who won gold at the YOG Singapore 2010 and went on to represent Australia at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
The 28-year-old has also become a passionate athlete ambassador for the Sports Environment Alliance – an Australian-based organisation which aims to empower the sports industry to take the lead on environmental sustainability.
“Being an athlete, I think we're pretty lucky. We get heard a bit more with the way we use social media,” explains Saville. “I’m an ambassador for the Sports Environment Alliance because the environment is something that is very important to me.
"I try to do as much as I can to help save the environment and can be very anal with my recycling! I think tennis is actually doing a great job in trying to become more environmentally friendly.
"There are a few tournaments in France that do that – for example, Strasbourg, they do a good job there. It’s not why I enter certain tournaments, but when events do things like that, I think all of the players learn so much just from being there. It opens your eyes to how you can do things better.
"It's not about being perfect, but if everyone tried to do a little bit better than what we do now, it would make a big difference.” - Daria Saville
IOC President Thomas Bach - "One of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced"
Saville is far from the only former YOG athlete to speak up on environmental issues.
British diver Tom Daley, who also competed at Singapore 2010 and has since won four Olympic medals including synchro platform gold at Tokyo 2020, was part of a powerful video – produced with support from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – which saw athletes calling on world leaders to deliver on climate action ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November last year.
Initiated by double Olympic sailing gold medallist Hannah Mills and former rower Melissa Wilson, the video featured more than 50 Olympians and Paralympians from all corners of the world, with its global reach highlighting the positive impact athletes can have when they use their voices for good.
“The IOC is delighted to support this initiative, and help Olympic athletes use their powerful voices to create a more sustainable future for everyone,” said IOC President Thomas Bach at the time. “Climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity has ever faced, and the IOC is proud to be leading the Olympic Movement’s response to this crisis.”
Olympic snowboard champ Chloe Kim - "I needed to get involved"
The athletes who are perhaps most affected by the environmental crisis are those who compete in winter sports, which are reliant on cold climates and reliable snowfall.
Two-time Olympic snowboarding champion and double YOG gold medallist Chloe Kim is among those winter athletes who have experienced detrimental conditions in training and competition as a result of our changing climate, and subsequently joined an initiative called Protect Our Winters (POW), which aims to engage and mobilise the outdoor sports community to lead the fight against climate change.
“It just made sense,” said Kim on joining the POW Alliance. “Seeing the impacts of climate change first-hand and hearing all of the discussions happening around it, I felt like I needed to get involved. My career and my love of snowboarding depend on it.”
Similarly, Kim’s former US snowboarding team-mate Arielle Gold, who won two silver medals at the Winter YOG Innsbruck 2012 and bronze at PyeongChang 2018, has committed herself to the climate movement through POW after worrying about the future of her sport.
She explained, “I have always wanted to find ways to help reduce my environmental impact, and POW has been a great resource in connecting me with a group of like-minded and awesome people.
"Through POW, I’ve been able to get more involved than ever, helping work on a variety of conservation initiatives and speaking at schools so that I can use whatever influence I have as a professional athlete to make a positive impact in every way possible."
Beijing 2022 freeski gold medallist Alex Hall - "A very pressing issue"
Like Kim and Gold, US freeskier Alex Hall has already witnessed how climate change is having a huge impact on his sport, with warmer weather leading to less snowfall and receding glaciers.
“I learned at a pretty young age that it’s obviously a real thing, and it's a very pressing issue,” he reveals. “Being a skier, you experience it first-hand. It's crazy to see how much it's changed even in just the last couple of years, which really is a very short timeframe when you look at it in the grand scheme of things.”
Hall, who won silver in slopestyle at the Winter YOG Lillehammer 2016 before clinching Olympic gold at Beijing 2022, says the changing conditions are an issue that all skiers are aware of, but believes little action has so far been taken.
“It's a conversation that a lot of people have, and I think skiers, specifically, talk about it a lot – especially the impacts and the differences we see,” he says. “But, if I'm going to be honest, there's not a ton of talk about solutions.
"There are small things you can do personally, but on a larger scale there's a lot that plays into solutions, and they're much easier said than done. But it's definitely something that many, if not all, my friends and fellow pro athletes are aware of.”
Thanks to the efforts of Hall and other former YOG athletes, more and more people are becoming aware of the issues and - for the sake of the planet and sport in general - hopefully the solutions will soon follow.