Putting sport and nature on the same team


For most sports, nature is the ‘stadium’ and the foundation. Athletes need healthy food, clean air and water and a stable climate. While sport is often rooted in the outdoor environment, many are unaware of the value of nature to their sport and also the impact of sport on nature, particularly through large events and the building of new sports facilities. In some cases, sport impacts natural World Heritage sites – amongst the world’s most valuable protected areas. Tackling this impact must be an urgent priority for the sports sector in order to stop biodiversity loss, writes WWF Director General Marco Lambertini.

Skiers at a resort in Krasnaya Polyana located in the Western Caucasus in Southern Russia.

From rivers and rapids paddled, mountains skied and climbed to the danger of open ocean sailing and sea-cliff diving, sports depend on nature for challenge, excitement, exploration… or just a place to play. Nature is also the very foundation of many sports, from helping athletes stay healthy to the venues and spaces that make competition and training possible.

However, our planet’s natural systems are under pressure like never before, increasingly affecting the sports that depend on it, such as winter sports resorts that lack snow due to climate change or track and field events organised in cities with poor air quality.

We have a duty to protect nature; the impact of new sports development contributes directly to habitat destruction.

Nature is at the centre, whether people are simply playing or spectating sport. We have a duty to protect nature which plays such a key role in the future of sport and in particular, address the new facilities and events that can put high pressure on valuable habitats. The impact of new sports development contributes directly to habitat destruction from new buildings and facilities. However, water diversion or abstraction, pollution from vehicles or sewage, soil erosion or compaction and light or noise pollution are also major problems.

WWF has engaged with sport for over two decades. Work with the London 2012 and Paris 2024 Olympics helped shape sustainable blueprints for future sporting mega events. Our Clean Water alliance with FISA, the world rowing federation, and partnership with UEFA, the European football federation, are developing sector-leading environmental initiatives. Recently, WWF’s campaign to protect UNESCO natural World Heritage sites included the sport sector, as some sports, especially winter sports, pose a particular risk to nature’s ‘crown jewels’.

The Kavkazski Nature Biosphere Reserve. The Kavkazski Nature Biosphere Reserve, part of the Western Caucasus World Heritage site. Photo: © Sergey Trepet/WWF-Russia

The world’s 209 UNESCO natural World Heritage sites cover iconic landscapes – sites such as the Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef and Serengeti National Park – that are some of the most important places on earth. They are internationally recognised as being of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ and protected under the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. Sadly, up to half these sites are at risk from industrial sectors including oil, gas, mining, infrastructure… and sport.

WWF’s Together, Saving Our Shared Heritage campaign was launched to remove critical threats from at-risk natural World Heritage sites and gain protection commitments from the multinational organisations impacting them. The campaign has helped to protect the Belize Barrier Reef, Doñana National Park in Spain and the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania.

However, these sport-related events highlight the impact on natural places of global importance.

Half of UNESCO natural World Heritage sites – recognised as the planet’s most significant protected areas – are at risk from industrial sectors including oil, gas, mining, infrastructure… and sport.

The footprint from Russia’s $50 billion Sochi 2014 Winter Games stretches from the Black Sea to the Caucasus Mountains – Europe’s most pristine mountain wilderness. Controversially, snow and sliding venues were located in Sochi National Park, immediately adjacent to the Western Caucasus natural World Heritage site, with super-scale building and infrastructure decimating rivers and fragile habitats and opening the area to further access and development.

Tough campaigning by WWF-Russia and local groups eventually secured a location change for the Olympic mountain village and the bobsleigh complex, away from the most sensitive areas. However, the careless introduction of caterpillars in ornamental trees led to devastation of endemic Colchic Boxwood forests within the World Heritage site. Then promises to upgrade the National Park’s protection after the Games evaporated. UNESCO’s 2016 monitoring mission recorded that sports-related construction has put the World Heritage site at risk.

Sochi 2014 Winter Games were located in Sochi National Park Venues for the Sochi 2014 Winter Games were located in Sochi National Park, immediately adjacent to the Western Caucasus natural World Heritage site. Photo: © Alexander Levchenko/WWF-Russia

Today, new threats come from plans to build the Kislovodsk-Adler highway through Sochi National Park and Caucasus Reserve, risking the largest stand of untouched mountain forests in Europe and undermining a programme to reintroduce the Persian leopard. In Russia, it can be said that the Olympics were the thin end of a destructive wedge for conservation.

1200 km away across the Black Sea, Pirin National Park in Bulgaria is the setting for another WWF battle against encroaching winter sports development – this time with a happier ending, at least for now.

Pirin National Park in Bulgaria Pirin National Park in Bulgaria. Photo: © Maya Eye Photography

Pirin National Park in Bulgaria became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. In 2010, UNESCO excluded areas from the site, downgrading them to “buffer zones” due to damage caused by construction around Bansko ski zone. Resort construction resulted in clearance of more than 160 ha of old-growth forest, including ancient trees and bear, chamois and wolf habitat. In December 2017, the Bulgarian government approved changes to the Park’s management plan to allow construction in nearly 50% of the Park. Bansko’s developers outlined plans, supported by FIS, the International Ski Federation, for enlargement from 70 km to more than 333 km of ski runs.

WWF’s campaign attracted more than 125,000 signatures to a petition for Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov to protect the Park and its pristine wildlife, and WWF appealed the proposed changes in court.

In January 2018, WWF and the ‘For the Nature’ coalition celebrated victory in the final court case against government plans to open this World Heritage site up to construction. In a ruling that cannot be appealed, Bulgaria’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the construction of new ski runs and adjacent infrastructure in Pirin is illegal.

All sports should have started the journey towards environmental sustainability.

Keeping with the positive, one outcome from Sochi has been greater scrutiny of major sports events, with many Olympic observers vowing that Russia’s mistakes cannot be repeated.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) partnership with IUCN could be viewed as a direct consequence of this, complementing a new IOC sustainability strategy with a series of IUCN-authored IOC guides to help minimise sport’s impact on biodiversity. This guidance builds on IUCN’s role in scrutinising bids to host future Olympic Games, plus new IOC efforts to support and train National Olympic Committees and international sports federations.

Speaking of international federations, special mention should be made again of World Rowing which, in 2018, became the first international sports organisation to support WWF’s Shared Heritage campaign, pledging to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee that rowing will do no harm to natural World Heritage sites.

World Rowing has pledged that the sport will do no harm to World Heritage sites World Rowing has pledged that the sport will do no harm to World Heritage sites. Photo: © FISA/Eric Meijer

It is World Rowing’s example that WWF now calls on other sports to follow. All sports should have started the journey towards environmental sustainability and can now use the IUCN/IOC guides to reduce their impact on nature. For international sports organisations, including the IOC, WWF urge a further step: to adopt a specific ‘no harm’ policy for natural World Heritage sites and make a public commitment by lodging this policy with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

With UNESCO World Heritage Committee’s June meeting, and the selection of the 2026 Winter Olympics host city in September, now is the time to bring sport and conservation together on the same team.

Sustainable development

Marco Lambertini

Marco Lambertini is the Director General of WWF International, an IUCN Member. He first worked with WWF in Italy as a youth volunteer. He now leads the global conservation organisation, with over five million supporters and a network active in more than 100 countries and territories. Prior to WWF, he was Chief Executive of BirdLife International where he restructured and led a decentralised secretariat, overseeing a global partnership of over 120 civil society organisations. His global experience includes: field research; international policy; nature reserve management; environmental education, communications and campaigning; NGO development; ecotourism; and integrated conservation and development projects. He has a degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and is a published author.


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