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World Athletics’ race to tackle climate change and provide a safe environment for all

November 02 2023

The next 10 to 20 years are crucial as proactive individuals, organisations and administrations mobilise efforts to tackle the climate emergency that is plaguing communities, animals and the planet we all inhabit. Given their profile, major sports rights-holders such as International Federations have a key role to play in amplifying the urgency of the issue to a global audience whilst challenging their own behaviours and processes.

World Athletics’ race to tackle climate change and provide a safe environment for all

One such sports organisation that is taking its role seriously when it comes to sustainability is World Athletics. The international governing body for athletics first introduced its Sustainability Strategy in 2020, outlining its plans for the next decade.

The 10-year strategy is focused on the three core pillars of sustainability – environment, social and economic. The commitment covers its own operations, while providing support to its 214 member federations and organisers of World Athletics Series events. 

Aligning with 13 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the strategy has been divided into a further six pillars that centre around actions and targets including leadership in sustainability; sustainable production and consumption; climate change and carbon; local environment and air quality; global equality; and diversity, accessibility and wellbeing. 

World Athletics will also harness a number of benefits from the 10-year plan, including better management of the sport’s social and environment risk factors; identification of opportunities benefiting the sport; lowering operating costs to enable greater investment in the sport; and providing a wider platform for partnerships with economic, social and environment benefits. 

An internal spotlight has been placed on reducing World Athletics’ carbon output by 10% each year. So far, the organisation’s headquarters have been powered by 100% renewable energy since the end of 2020, and a sustainable procurement code and travel policy have also been put in place. 

"The examples we can set through our events are our greatest strength. It's really exciting to watch that influence grow.” Bob Ramsak, World Athletics' Head of Sustainability

While the COVID-19 pandemic hindered real tangible and measurable change following the immediate introduction of World Athletics’ 10-year strategy, Head of Sustainability Bob Ramsak explains to Global Sustainable Sport that the governing body is making good progress.

“COVID got us off to a slow start but we’re catching up,” he says. “There’s a wider awareness of the strategy and its aims among staff at our headquarters, and a really strong awareness and willingness on the part of events to begin their journeys as well.

“That’s what is really exciting about the Athletics for a Better World standard – that it is getting hundreds of events from all over the world looking into ways to reduce the environmental impact of their events and improve its social impact.

“Our events, both in stadia and on the roads, reach and involve tens of thousands of people in the communities hosting them, and collectively, hundreds of million more around the world who watch and follow them. The examples we can set through our events are our greatest strength. It’s really exciting to watch that influence grow.”

A Better World Standard

The standard to which Ramsak alludes was unveiled in April 2020 as a key component of the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy. The system advises and evaluates an event on its sustainable delivery, with the Local Organising Committee (LOC) working towards numerous goals.

Across the summer, the World Athletics Championships took place in Budapest, Hungary. This event’s organisers were the first to fully embrace the standard.

Consisting of 42 action areas for all levels of event delivery, the measure focuses on procurement, waste management, energy, food and water management, travel and accommodation planning. Additionally, diversity, accessibility and inclusion of staff and volunteers are addressed within the standard.

“The LOC agreed to give the standard a full-throttle test run at their championships,” says Ramsak.

“The organisers hired a sustainability manager who worked really fast and really hard to embed various sustainability initiatives into most of the functional areas. Given that they only had about eight months to work with, they did a really great job. We all learned a great deal, and it was a great experience for us as we move forward.”

The standard is tiered, with platinum, gold, silver, bronze and recognised event achievement levels. Eventually, these levels will need to be met as part of the evaluation process for all World Athletics-licensed events from next year. Cities that launched bids in the first half of 2023 for World Athletics Series events were required to commit to achieving gold level.

“A prospective host’s approach to sustainability has been one factor of the bidding process for some time,” says Ramsak.

As part of its commitment to help the wider sport of athletics, the standard is also scalable, meaning that events at any level – from a local, free, parkrun to a national or world championship – would be able to achieve the highest standard.

“World Athletics championship events will focus on both strong delivery and the sustainability legacy they create for their host venues and cities.” Bob Ramsak, World Athletics' Head of Sustainability

Additionally, the World Athletics’ Sustainable Event Management System (SEMS) was unveiled in 2021, providing guidance in 15 key areas of event planning and delivery for licensed one-day meetings, tour events, Label Road Race organisers and organising committees. The system also incorporates the Athletics for a Better World standard, alongside the 15 key areas.

Earlier this year, the system achieved ISO 20121 Sustainable Event Certification, cementing the credibility of World Athletics’ sustainability efforts.

Since its unveiling, organisers of nearly 300 one-day competition series events and label road races have utilised the system. A number of events piloted both the system and standard in 2022, and even more have piloted them this year leading up to its implementation from January 2024.

Ramsak explains: “Implementation will have different objectives, depending on the event category. Annually held events, such as those that are part of the Wanda Diamond League, the Continental Tour or Label Road Race series, will be able to set longer term targets and objectives and chart their progress year-on-year.

“World Athletics championship events will focus on both strong delivery and the sustainability legacy they create for their host venues and cities.”

During the inaugural year, organisers will be expected to utilise the Athletics for a Better World standard; embedding it into the delivery of the event. Hosts will be expected to achieve at least the ‘Recognised Event’ level in 2024, before aiming higher in future years. Webinars from World Athletics are set to take place on December 5-6, 2023 to ensure that organisers have the tools they need to achieve the expected levels.

Next March will see the World Athletics Indoor Championships take place in the Scottish city of Glasgow, with organisers committed to delivering an event that complies with the standard. Planning meetings with sustainability leads for the 2025 World Championship in Tokyo, Japan are also already underway.

Athletics for a Better World

Of course, the responsibility to save the planet extends to athletes and fans – to all of us.

The Athletics for a Better World social responsibility programme encompasses the World Athletics Sustainability Strategy, the World Athletics Air Quality project and the Athlete Refugee Team.

Furthermore, in 2018, the World Athletics Air Quality project was created to raise awareness of air pollution across the globe and the impact it has on elite athletes, as well as recreational runners.

Last year, World Athletics shared the results of a survey conducted by the organisation to gauge the attitudes of elite athletes on environmental and social issues, which demonstrated athletes’ concern over the climate crisis. More than three-quarters of those surveyed said they were very worried.

To assist with these concerns, World Athletics offers athletes advice on how to support sustainability through the food consumed, the energy used, things bought and the waste produced.

This support for athletes also incorporates World Athletics’ guidelines on safeguarding, with the aim of creating a safe and welcoming environment for all. Each Member Federation must have its own safeguarding policy in place by the end of this year, with World Athletics offering guidance and template documents with safeguarding rules, codes of conduct, flowcharts and reporting forms.

Athlete Refugee Team

With two ongoing armed conflicts dominating headlines and news pages, there has been a focus on those displaced through no fault of their own.

The World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team (ART) is composed of athletes that have fled violence, conflict and injustice at home. It was founded in 2014 and has since evolved to become a year-round full-time refugee team programme.

ART made its first competitive appearance as part of the Refugee Olympic team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. World Athletics has since built on this foundation by creating a more structured approach, with the goal of eventually creating an actual team with athletes from different nationalities.

Since its debut in Rio, the Athlete Refugee Team has competed at nearly every World Athletics Series event, including the 2017, 2019 and 2022 World Championships; the 2017 World U19 Championships; the 2018 and 2021 World Half Marathon Championships; the 2017 and 2019 World Athletics Relays; and the 2018 and 2021 World U20 Championships.

Athletes are based at a number of camps in locations across the world, with World Athletics providing financial assistance to fund coaches and to provided competitive opportunities.

The Athlete Refugee Team is just another example of World Athletics’ wide-ranging commitment to sustainability, and from social narratives to keeping its Members on the right track, there is significant potential to inspire change.

World Athletics is the global governing body for the sport of athletics. You can read more about the organisation’s commitment to sustainability here.

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