The 7th Commonwealth Debate on Sport and Sustainable Development addresses sport’s responsibility to improve mind, body and planet

April 06 2023

Leading figures in the sports industry came together this week at the 7th Commonwealth Debate on Sport and Sustainable Development, held on 4th April at Marlborough House, London.

The 7th Commonwealth Debate on Sport and Sustainable Development addresses sport’s responsibility to improve mind, body and planet

Scheduled to mark the International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, the debate, held in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, brought together government officials, athletes, academics, civil society and the private sector to address a critical question at the intersection of sports and sustainability: whether a compassionate sports sector should enable the charge for a healthy mind, body, and planet.

The debate aimed to ‘enable conversations around the use of sports to address climate change’, and to explore how ‘sports can take more of a leading role in tackling physical and mental health issues’. Held in-person for the first time since 2019, along with over 700 participants watching online, the debate made way for wide-ranging discussions that touched on some complex questions at the heart of the sports sustainability agenda: how can sport address growing crises in mental and physical health? What role can the sports industry play in the fight against climate change? And how do we bridge the gap between commercial and elite sport and the sports for development sector?

Over an engaging and informative afternoon, speakers emphasised the seriousness of the current climate and health crises that are affecting Commonwealth nations and the wider world, but also the many opportunities for sport to address them. As we reach the halfway point towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, sport has a critical role to play in addressing the most urgent problems of our age.

Introducing the debate: ‘Sport is a Commonwealth characteristic’

Following an introduction by Professor Grant Jarvie, Director and Chair of Sport at the University of Edinburgh, The Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland KC, Secretary-General of The Commonwealth, Dr the Hon. Christopher Tufton, Minister of Health and Wellness, Government of Jamaica, and Professor Liz Grant, Director of the Global Health Academy at the University of Edinburgh opened the event in welcoming remarks which introduced the connections between the Commonwealth, sport, health and wellbeing, and climate change.

Patricia Scotland argued that, during a time of ‘great change and challenge’, sport can be a ‘point of connection’. Speaking from the perspective of the Commonwealth, she noted how cricket, a major sport in many Commonwealth countries, exemplifies how sport is both affected by and tackling changes to the climate: rising temperatures are affecting pitch playability and causing heat exhaustion among players, while major venues such as Lords are shifting to using renewable energy.

Addressing the issue of physical and mental health, Christopher Tufton argued that the relationship between health, sport, and climate is also multidirectional. Sport is a ‘rich, varied, and powerful resource’ that can be used as ‘a useful tool to strengthen health systems’, but healthy environments and access to green and blue spaces are critical for sport to fully provide health benefits. Climate change endangers these spaces.

Finally, Liz Grant reiterated that we are at a ‘significant moment of global history’, facing a triple environmental threat—from climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution—as well as social erosion and economic crisis. She emphasised the human suffering behind such crises, and how sport is uniquely positioned to address it: ‘sport is the one community across the globe that brings people together… a compassionate sport sector can change everything.’

With the stage set, the speakers turned to address the motion for debate: ‘A compassionate sports sector should enable the charge for a healthy mind, body and planet.’

The proposition: the ‘virtuous circle’ of climate, sport, and health

Arguing for the motion were Melissa Wilson, rower and co-founder of Athletes of the World; Claire Poole, founder and CEO of Sport Positive; Hon. Bakary Y. Badjie, Minister of Youth and Sports, The Gambia, and Dr. Walker Ross, Lecturer, Moray House School of Education and Sport at the University of Edinburgh.

Together the team emphasised the urgency of the climate crisis, and argued that climate, sport, and health are fundamentally interconnected: we cannot address one without addressing the others. A damaged environment affects physical and mental health, but sport can only offer health benefits if it has a healthy planet.

Their arguments provided multiple examples of the impact of climate change on sport. Referencing a 2020 report, Playing Against the Clock, Bakary Y. Badjie noted that half of Winter Olympic cities would be unable to host winter sports by 2050, while Melissa Wilson highlighted how heat and air pollution are increasingly leading to postponed events, athlete collapse, and heat exhaustion. Walker Ross drew attention to the link between unhealthy environments and poor mental health outcomes, as well as the growing number of young people suffering from climate anxiety.

Building on this, the team argued that sport, climate, and health are inextricably interconnected, and that sport should therefore lead the way when it comes to both health and the climate. Claire Poole emphasised how the sports sector has a global reach and unique capacity to lead a ‘virtuous circle’ that would protect the environment, reduce the impact of climate on mental and physical health, and enable sport to thrive, supporting positive health outcomes in the process.

The opposition: questions of capacity and credibility

Following the arguments in favour, the opposition team set out their case. The team included Dr. Ellen Barnie Peprah, Physician and Coordinator of the Commonwealth Health Youth Network; Dr. William Bird, GP and CEO of Intelligent Health; Hayley Jarvis, Head of Physical Activity at Mind; and Professor Corinne Read, Professorial Fellow with the Global Health Academy and Academy of Sport at the University of Edinburgh.

The opposition’s case agreed that the climate crisis was of critical importance but argued that sport must choose to work where it is most effective. Given the clear evidence for sport as an effective low-cost intervention to address physical and mental health issues, sport should focus on improving health rather than seeking to take the lead on climate. Significantly, they argued that sport suffers from a lack of credibility when it comes to climate issues, and so is not in a position to take a leading role in the fight.

Hayley Jarvis noted that less than 2% of the current global health budget is allocated to mental health. Sport is a scalable and innovative solution for treating mental health issues, as ongoing initiatives such as the partnership between Mind and the EFL has demonstrated. William Bird drew attention to the global rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and the four main risk factors of inactivity, diet, alcohol and tobacco. He argued that sport is in a key position to address inactivity and directly improve health outcomes.

Meanwhile, Ellen Barnie Peprah argued that sport is suffering from limited resource capacity and a lack of credibility. She argued that, while corporate funding for climate and sustainability is increasing, sport for development is suffering from budget cuts and limited capacity. Corinne Read, too, emphasised funding cuts, and argued that, in light of this and the clear-cut connections between sport and health outcomes, the sport’s focus must be on responding to the health crisis.

The team also called into question the sport industry’s credibility in climate actions. Ellen Barnie Peprah noted that large elite sports events in particular often rely on ‘words not deeds’: organisers of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, for example, are yet to realise their offsets, despite ambitious climate claims. Given this, the team argued, sport is in no position to lead in climate spaces.

Questions and rebuttals

Following the initial arguments, both teams laid out their rebuttals. For the proposition, Claire Poole accepted the severity of the global health crises, but reiterated that we can only support people by also supporting the planet. The team disagreed that sport needed to have its ‘house in order’ before it could act, and maintained that sportspeople are among the most influential leaders of our time and so have a duty to lead on both health and climate.

In closing, Poole quoted David Goldblatt, who has argued that ‘sport is a rare cultural space in which people experience the possibility of radical turnarounds and last-minute victories – precisely the emotional and psychic space that the climate movement requires if it is to break down the walls of cynicism that block collective climate action.’

The opposition also agreed that protecting the planet is crucial, but questioned whether this should be the focus of sport. They argued that sport has an untarnished record when it comes to addressing health, but not at all when it comes to climate. Sport, then, should focus on health outcomes, because healthy and robust communities will then, in turn, be best-placed to tackle the climate crisis.

While the adjudicators left the room to deliberate, speakers then fielded questions from attendees and viewers online. The questions tapped into some of the tensions and complexities that had been highlighted by the debate: from the ability of sporting events to leave true positive legacies, to whether society should encourage more environmentally-friendly sports, to whether there is a disconnect between the commercial world of sport and the sport for development sector.

Outcome and closing remarks

Following their deliberations, the adjudicators, lead by Katie Sadleir, Chief Executive Officer of the Commonwealth Games Federation, returned to the room to announce the result. The adjudicators agreed that the debate had been thought-provoking, and that both teams had been passionate and knowledgeable in their arguments. The final result went to the proposition. Ultimately, Sadleir argued, protecting the planet was critical, and in order to address health, sport cannot ignore climate.

In closing remarks, Patricia Scotland reflected on the result. She noted that ‘if we don’t save our planet, none of us will have a playing field.’ She emphasised the need for sport to take a holistic approach and to avoid divisions. The motion had asked whether sport ‘can’ lead the way in protecting mind, body and planet—the only answer, she concluded, is ‘yes’.

Thoughts for the future

The Commonwealth Debate was a significant opportunity to bring together academics, policymakers, sportspeople, government officials, and the private sector, and to bridge gaps between the elite sports industry and the sport for development sector. By looking closely at the relationship between sport, health, and climate, the motion allowed for a discussion that raised important issues for sport to consider as it moves forward towards 2030.

In particular, the debate highlighted distinctions between commercial and elite sport, grassroots sport, and sport for development, and raised questions about how these different stakeholders can work together to achieve climate and health-related goals. It will be important to bridge these gaps if sport is to achieve its full potential.

The discussion also raised important questions about the credibility of the sports industry, and whether sport can take the lead when it has its own undeniable role in contributing to climate change. This is a question that affects many large global industries, and sports stakeholders must be aware of both their impacts on the climate and their actions to protect it, ensuring that they are reducing their climate impacts as fast and as effectively as possible.

The debate also highlighted the nature of current global health crises, particularly mental health issues, the growing threat of non-communicable diseases, and the disproportionate impact of both on lower-income and disadvantaged communities. It also directly demonstrated how sport has a unique role to play to tackle these, provided that health programmes are properly and adequately funded.

The Commonwealth is particularly threatened by the climate crisis: 35 Commonwealth countries are small island states, and so are set to face the most dangerous impacts of climate change. The debate and discussions highlighted how organisations of all sizes have a critical role to play in ensuring that policy is properly implemented and programmes are adequately supported in order to mitigate the effect of climate change on those most vulnerable to its effects.

The 7th Commonwealth Debate on Sport and Sustainable Event marked a welcome opportunity for cross-sector collaboration, discussion, and debate. It showed how, if sport is to truly improve mind, body, and planet, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, it must build bridges, lead by example, and draw on its unique power and profile.

Read moreBethany White

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