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International Women’s Day 2022: Female Olympians leading the charge for sustainability

The fight for our planet’s future is one that involves everyone – including Olympians.

Just like everyday people, elite athletes, through their various sports and disciplines, continue to find themselves on the front line when it comes to experiencing the impacts of climate change and they want to do something about it.

Using the platform afforded to them by the Olympic Games, top sports stars are increasingly speaking up and doing their bit to ensure change can be delivered when it comes to the climate crisis.

In line with this year’s theme for International Women’s Day – “gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” – Olympics.com is spotlighting female Olympians leading by example when it comes to changing their world and our habits for the better.

From the Pacific Ocean encircling American Samoa to the pitches of France’s Division 1 Féminine, meet the women combining the forces of sporting excellence and climate action in order to preserve the world for future generations.

Tilali Scanlan carries the flag of America Samoa with Tanumafili Malietoa Jungblut at the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony
Tilali Scanlan carries the flag of America Samoa with Tanumafili Malietoa Jungblut at the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony
Picture by 2021 Getty Images
Tilali Scanlan – Ocean lover, climate activist
For Tokyo 2020 swimming star Tilali Scanlan there is no greater feeling than being in the water.

Born and raised in Vaitogi, American Samoa, the 22-year-old has always felt a close affinity to the element. Every day after being home schooled the seventh born of eight children would swim in local tide pools.

Realising she had a talent for the sport Scanlan rallied her neighbours for sponsorship and soon began a competitive swimming career representing American Samoa that took her, most recently, to biggest sporting stage of them all: the Olympic Games.

As the swimmer’s career developed so too did her passion for the ocean and its surrounding ecosystems. In between training and encouraging young American Samoans to take up swimming, Scanlan pursued a degree in Marine Science/Biology at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.

Her studies revealed what she had always known to be true: that we and nature are co-dependent.

Committed to restoring and maintaining the environment that provided her the opportunity to travel the world and compete, Scanlan is now about to embark on a two-year programme to learn more about the coral reefs in her native country.

She is one of seven people selected to take part in the National Coral Reef Management Fellowship Program 2022-2024 – a partnership between Nova Southeastern University’s Coral Reef Institute, NOAA’S Coral Reef Conservation Program, the US Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs and the US Coral Reef All Islands Committee.

Scanlan will be working with the Coral Reef Advisory Group and partner agencies as the Fellow in American Samoa to conduct coral restoration trials. She will also focus on raising community awareness of best techniques and practices to help ensure the success of the coral restoration efforts.

Wendie Renard – Formidable footballer, climate campaigner: 

French footballer and two-time Olympian Wendie Renard is using her voice to campaign for climate action.

Readily admitting that to date the 31-year-old has not been “blameless” in the fight for sustainability, now the seven-time UEFA Women’s Champions League winner with Olympique Lyonnais is ready to change.

Just recently Renard appeared at the forefront of a campaign with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to draw attention to the plight of the world’s biodiversity in the face of climate change.

As part of it, the footballer shares:

“I’ve won matches in my career but today the greatest victory I would like to win is the one against the disappearance of nature.

“As athletes, artists, and citizens, we all need the air, water and food it provides us. In order not to become the last footballer to still be able to score goals, I have therefore decided to commit myself in favour of nature.

“I am not beyond reproach – far from it – but I want to improve myself by changing my habits. I invite each of us to do the same, as well as our decision-makers,” she adds.

“There is still time to reverse the trend.”

Wendie Renard celebrates as France score in the Olympic quarter finals at London 2012
Picture by 2012 Getty Images

Alongside other titans of French sport including Tokyo 2020 handball gold medallist Nikola Karabatic and Torino 2006 snowboarder Mathieu Crepel, Renard asks that people sign a manifesto for change titled “Pas le dernier” meaning, not the last.

The manifesto is a call to arms and challenges those around today to do the work for tomorrow’s generations. It reads:

“We are the first generation to suffer the consequences of environmental degradation and the last to be able to reverse the trend. We do not want to witness the disappearance of the last elephants, tigers, whales and other species. We don’t want to see the last forests go to ashes, the last glaciers melt or oceans die.

“We don’t want to be the last artists and the last athletes to be able to express ourselves, practice, live in a healthy environment from which we draw water, oxygen and food that are essential to our lives.

“We don’t want to be the last to commit to stopping the destruction of nature. We don’t want to be the last to act. And you?”

Doubling down on her efforts to become a true ambassador for change Renard is also leading the way at her club Lyon.

She was one of six players – which included Great Britain’s Lucy Bronze until her move to Manchester City – leading the women’s and men’s teams to become individually more responsible for their environmental actions.

Captain Wendie Renard of Olympique Lyonnais celebrates after her team’s victory in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2020
Captain Wendie Renard of Olympique Lyonnais celebrates after her team’s victory in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2020
Picture by Alvaro Barrientos

To become the most successful sailor in Olympic history you have to be unyielding, and Team GB sailor Hannah Mills has always been exactly that.

From her first silver medal at her home Games in London to her second gold on the Enoshima Yacht Harbour at Tokyo 2020 with Eilidh McIntyre, the now-retired Welsh woman has always been relentless in her pursuit of excellence.

Now she’s channelling the energy into saving the environment.

Like Scanlan, Mills’ sport requires her to be at one with nature, and it is because of that relationship she has developed throughout the course of her life, that she is now doing her best to save it.

“Every single beach, marina and harbour that I’ve sailed in is littered with plastic,” she told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last year.

“That’s opened the gateway for me into the world of sustainability. I want to use my sporting background, networks, and profile to raise awareness, change behaviour and influence others on environment issues.”

“The Olympic dream is all about being the best you can – and that doesn’t just mean competing or winning medals; it means being a good global citizen” – Hannah Mills, to Olympics.com.

When the spotlight fell on the leaders of the world at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last year Mills seized the moment.

With the help of the IOC and fellow Olympian Melissa Wilson, she gathered more than 50 high-profile Olympians and Paralympians to lend their voices in support on climate action.

From Kenyan marathon star Eliud Kipchoge to British tennis ace Andy Murray no sporting star’s power was spared.

They called COP26 – considered to be one of the most important climate change conferences ever held given the global state of affairs as they stand – the “Olympics of climate summits,” and urged world leaders to deliver as they had done when expected at the Tokyo Games.

Even before COP26 Mills has had targeting plastic on her agenda.

Back in 2019, the two-time Olympic champion launched the Big Plastic Pledge, which aims to eliminate single-use plastic entirely from sport. From using refillable water bottles to refusing plastic packaging, the campaign promotes all ways to help end our dependency on the material.

A year later she and Norwegian rower Martin Helseth were chosen as European Climate Pact Ambassadors to help inform, inspire, and support climate action within the sporting community.

She told the IOC at the time:

“I believe it’s every person’s responsibility to do what they can to help address climate change, because this global problem affects each and every one of us.

“Sport has a huge role to play. There are many reasons for this, including the reach of global sporting events and the fact that sport is an ‘innovator’, always pushing boundaries. If we can use its power to help more people understand climate change and the available solutions to address it, then we can really make a difference.”

Hannah Mills of Team GB celebrates her gold medal following the Women’s 470 class at Tokyo 2020
Hannah Mills of Team GB celebrates her gold medal following the Women’s 470 class at Tokyo 2020.

Credit: Olympics 

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