Climate change in sports – An interview with triathlete Christine Johnson

Christine Johnson on the podium at the Keswick Mountain Festival 2018 for the 1 mile swim.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you’re involved in sports?

Christine Johnson swimming front crawl in open water.

I have been involved with sports most of my life. I competed as a triathlete for over 20 years travelling all over the world racing, racing semi-elite for 3 years from 2002 to 2005. I stopped competing in triathlon in 2016, and now compete in Masters competitions in the pool and open water. I have run an open water events & coaching business, Sleeker Swim, for the past 12 years in the South Lakes. As part of this role, I run competitive open water swims, events, fun events and open water courses.

How important is sustainability to you, and what led you to become interested in this area?

Sustainability is extremely important to me. I am a firm believer that if everyone did their bit and just cared a little about the environment and the world we live in, we could make a big difference in preserving this world for ourselves and future generations. I have been a vegetarian since 2006 and am almost vegan, choosing mostly dairy-free alternatives. I am a member of many animal charities – PETA, Human Society International, Compassion in Farming, and I’m obviously very aware how much the meat industry adds to carbon emissions and global warming with animal feed growth, transport, and the clearing of massive areas in the Amazon for cattle.

In what ways have you seen the climate emergency affect your sport?

Christine in front of the Swim England banner sporting 3 medals from the National Short Course Masters Championships. She medalled in the 400m Freestyle and 100m Butterfly.

Living in the Lake District since 2010, I experienced the severe floods in December 2016, which caused a huge amount of county flooding both in North Lancashire (Lancaster) & most of Cumbria.  I remember being unable to get home after an evening of swim coaching as every road out of Capernwray to the north, south & east was flooded. I had never seen anything like it.

Again in August 2019, I was forced to cancel one my swim events due to severe rain and flooding, which made it unsafe to swim in Windermere. Since 2019, most years have seen wetter, milder winters. Invariably, there is more flooding causing problems on the road and more trees down when it is windy/stormy weather due to the waterlogged soil.

Another example where the climate is having a detrimental effect is the change in temperature and extreme heat in parts of the northern hemisphere. It was certainly noticeable in August 2022 when we had a very long, dry and hot spell up in the North West of England. I witnessed Lake Windermere measuring 23 degrees. In 12 years of swimming in Lake Windermere, I had never experienced it so warm. This has a major impact on the quality of the water for swimming and all water-related activities. The lake literally turns green with blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria). There is a big concern at present with water companies dumping millions of gallons of untreated sewage into our lakes and rivers. When this is combined with an increase in temperature, the algae situation is exacerbated considerably.

Christine in swim coach mode in a kayak on Windermere.

What steps are you taking to reduce your environmental impact?

On a personal basis, I recycle as much as possible. I feel there is no excuse in the South Lakes as your boxes are collected by the council. I use recycled toilet paper (Who Gives A Crap) from a global company that gives 50% of their profits to water projects ensuring communities have proper toilets and clean drinking water. I also use eco laundry sheets rather than purchasing washing liquid in plastic containers.

In my events this year, I have provided compostable glasses for drinks and paper straws, and I never use any single-use plastic for any of my courses or events. I also advertise the fact that I use sustainable products as feel it is so important for events in the Lake District to lead by example. I have also stopped using glow sticks for my Summer Solstice & Dip in the Dark events. I refuse to throw away any personal torn/damaged swim caps and collect them to send off for recycling.

Do you believe the sports industry has a unique role to play in addressing climate change?

Yes, I believe the sports industry has a very important role to play, specifically outdoor sports and those that attract huge audiences, such as football and tennis matches. I read recently that after a big American Super Bowl match in Las Vegas had finished, 525 business jets took off. Big events now need to take a stand on sustainability and the travel involved in their events. They should encourage attendees to use public transport and make this attractive with discounts, for example. They should discourage car usage with expensive car parking, etc. Obviously, they would need to give consideration to the elderly & disabled.

Are there any athletes or sports organisations you admire for their commitment to sustainability?

There are a lot of top athletes choosing to turn vegan these days, and celebrities too from a health and ethical stance. Patrik Baboumian is a great example of one such body builder. He won Germany’s Strongest Man in 2011 proving that we don’t need meat (to be fit and strong). If people could cut their meat consumption down a few days a week, the world would benefit greatly.

I appreciate this is a very complex subject and with the meat industry massive in the US, it is very controversial and politicised. But I want to believe that in the next ten years, we, as a world, will wake up to and realise we have to do something about how much meat is consumed!

Peter Egan and Ricky Gervais are great advocates of animal charities and our climate. Obviously, the incredible David Attenborough and Jane Goodall are absolute icons who are entirely dedicated to helping with the climate catastrophe we are facing.

On a more specific level and relevant to my sport (open water swimming and the outdoor sports society) the NEW TO YOU marketplace ensures that one swimmer’s trash is another swimmer’s treasure. Just like one person’s ill-fitting wetsuit will ‘’fit like a glove’’ on someone else. You also used to be able to recycle swim hats & goggles with Sea & Stream. I’d love to know of any similar organisations to this. The Continuum Project is another fantastic initiative by Alpkit, which enables people to donate their unused kit (swimming or otherwise) to those who need it most.

How can sports events be more sustainable without compromising on excitement and fan engagement?

I feel that both as a nation and at a global level, we need to incorporate sustainability into all aspects of life, whether it be travel, work or leisure. Being sustainable doesn’t have to be perceived as being boring, it needs to become more normal. Particularly large events, such as in football, rugby and cricket need to incorporate sustainability. They need to support incentivised public transport to events, and dissuade the ultra-rich from using jets. Within the stadium and similar areas, all food packaging, serving material and utensils need to be recyclable, making it easy to recycle, and almost shaming people for not recycling through the use of posters, for example.

Sustainability needs to be a collective effort from the organising team, site team and the sportspeople using the venue.

What are the cobenefits you envisage that we could enjoy if we focused more on sustainability in this field?

Open water swimming and triathlon are obviously outdoor sports which enjoy the natural environment. With the swimming involved, water needs to meet strict bathing standards to safeguard the health of the competitors and entrants. This is very topical at present unfortunately, with the Paris Olympics and the water quality in the Seine. This is causing a real headache for organisers of the open water swim, who are being forced to consider whether to change the venue or switch from a triathlon to a duathlon. This is a prime example of where pollution is directly affecting the biggest global sporting event of the world. Unfortunately, due to excess rainfall over recent weeks, there is more storm runoff and increased water levels which cause sewage overflows into the Seine. This results in very high levels of E. coli.

This really brings us back to the climate crisis, with wetter summers in some areas and dryer summers elsewhere. Over the last couple of years, it is becoming very apparent that the world’s climate is changing for the worse. We need to all act together at a global level.

How do you think sports fans and participants can be encouraged to engage with sustainability efforts in their daily lives?

I feel that manufacturers have a role to play, while individuals and events should insist on sustainable products. We should be encouraged to recycle, upcycle, and not use single-use products. We need to move away from acting a throwaway society and should, at the very least, join reuse/recycle groups, give kit to sportspeople just starting out, etc.

What future trends do you foresee in the intersection of sports and sustainability?

I believe we, as a world, have to change. We can’t continue on the same trajectory. We need to make some serious changes in the next decade. Obviously this is a global problem, but I feel sport has a big role to play, specifically sports ambassadors who are absolute heroes in their fan’s eyes, just as pop stars are. They have an incredible platform.

Christine swimming in open water with a safety crew member in the background in a canoe.

Huge thanks go to Christine for sharing her views on this tricky subject. I hope it proved enlightening and inspiring. Please feel free to get in touch with me if you’d like to take part in this series.

To follow or get in touch with Christine Johnson, please visit her Sleeker Swim website or Facebook page.

Thanks for reading!

Please note that the views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the interviewee. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Marjolein Thickett, The Native Crowd or its affiliates. The information provided is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice. Readers are encouraged to explore their own views and to read as much as possible on this topic.

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