Responsible Sport: Owning Up to the Problem

By Jeff Henderson

Trash Pile
Sweet, sweet trash …
Courtesy Jeff Henderson

“County-road-sign makers seldom tell you twice. If you miss that sign in the weeds that’s your problem, not theirs.”
        – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

This is a story about butter. Somewhere in the telling, power and desire and revenge creep in, but fundamentally it is a story about butter.

Man evolved in the cradle of civilization, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, amid warm breezes and hospitable soils. As man wandered and spread, he ventured to less hospitable climes that required him to build shelters. In his home and away from the land, man desired ways to preserve food for tomorrow, so he salted and pickled and preserved and eventually cooled, first with ice and later the refrigerator. In warm weather, desiring to protect his animal’s products from the heat, he placed butter inside the refrigerator and it stayed cold and firm for him.

When kept outside the refrigerator during moderate temperatures, man discovered that butter stays soft and spreadable, a much desired quality. So as to avoid removing the butter in mild weather and placing it back into the refrigerator during warm weather, he invented a particular spot for his butter, a compartment with a warm surface where he could control the temperature and soften the butter to his liking.

And so the butter sits in its compartment, soft to the touch but not melting at 50 degrees, inside a refrigerator cooled to 40 degrees, inside a home heated to 70 degrees, in a climate where the outside air might be 50 degrees. Three layers of precisely regulated thermal control engineered to provide man his desired butter at the desired temperature, all of the time.

How we have fallen. Our need for control and convenience and possessions has driven us to madness, no longer able to respect the earth that long has sustained us. This earth is recoiling, straining and shifting beneath our weight, yet we insist on maintaining our foolhardy ways.

Our swath of destruction cuts wide, no longer limited to securing food, clothing, shelter. Our pastimes-the things we pursue for amusement-now scar the land, pollute the skies, befoul the water. We pander to our basest instincts-the thrill of the hunt, the rush of competition-while ignoring the intelligence we have cultivated over a millennium.

On October 13, 2007, an army of athletes assembled upon the island of Hawaii for the Ironman world championship.  From all corners of the globe they came, 1,787 strong, to prove their ability to conquer the water and ground beneath them. Aside from 68 residents of the state of Hawaii, all of them flew jet airliners to attend; the combined distance traveled amounted to 18,312,992 miles ( Eighteen million miles-for one day of sport.

The jet airplanes belched 3,634 tons of carbon dioxide and other destructive greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the equivalent generated by 525 average American homes producing heat and light for one year.

When did we stop caring? When did it become acceptable to shirk responsibility, to shift it to another person, another country, another generation?

– – –

This fall I volunteered at the Westchester Triathlon in New York. After the race, I stood beneath an unusually warm September sun breaking down bike racks in an endless parking lot. I tore them down and placed them in the back of a truck; by mid-afternoon, all that remained of the transition area was trash, the waste generated by 1,000 athletes over a six-hour span.

Gel packets. Scraps of bagel. Plastic water bottles by the hundreds, a consequence of our evolution to single-use containers. All of it destined for the landfill, as Westchester does not contract a recycler. The amount of trash, and the inability of its producers to shuttle it to the trash can, was astounding.

As I stood resting, preparing to resume cleanup, two Team-in-Training women joined me in the otherwise empty lot. They each carried a plastic bag. Wordlessly they began circulating, emptying bottles and cans, placing them into the bags. As I broke down a nearby aid station, I watched the parking lot transform from a field of litter to a manageable bulk of waste. They disappeared after an hour and a half, taking their collected recycling with them. They probably saved Westchester half its trash bill.

– – –

Sport has long been an innovator.  Things we have learned about health, longevity and nutrition have often been driven by athletics. Through it we have discovered new materials, perfected technologies, improved systems and processes. And yet sport now falls behind, catering more to conspicuous consumption than long-held principles of conservation, efficiency and adaptability.

With our food, we demand organic. Our homes are triple-sealed against drafts, our thermostats and lighting computer-controlled. We buy Priuses and separate glass from cardboard. Yet our races stagnate. At the Chicago Marathon, 1.8 million cups were used to dispense water; few events practice recycling or composting. We travel thousands of miles to “destination races” while the local YMCA can’t draw 100 to its Spring Fling. A steel bike could last a lifetime; instead we buy carbon and replace it the very next year.

Sport is stuck in the age of excess. While the rest of the world educates itself about carbon offsets, global warming and alternative energy, we content ourselves with bigger cars (to haul our gear) and more exotic races.  It is no longer acceptable for those who care to clean up for the rest of us.
Jeff Henderson forsook the world of competitive swimming for triathlon in 1997. Since then he has busied himself competing, officiating, writing, and race directing.  He directs the Musselman Triathlon, the Fly by Night Duathlon, and the City of Portland Triathlon. To stay sane, he cares for Ophelia, Dixie, and Wyan, three charismatic yet remunerative backyard chickens..

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