Dreams of Gold and Green U.S. Olympic Athletes Push Environmental Causes

An eerie metallic sound swells as U.S. Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk poises on the pool’s edge. Her leg muscles tense, and, in a flash, she and the other swim-mers dive beneath the water. “It’s said our fastest racers swim like fish,” says the voiceover. The swimmers push against the wall and turn. “Unfortunately, that’s no longer fast enough.” Kirk and the three other swimmers are trapped inside a fishing net and dragged to the surface. “One hundred million sharks are killed each year,” Kirk says. “Stop the over-fishing or they’ll be gone forever.” The 30-second public service announcement ends with a plug for the sponsoring organization’s website: www.wildaid.org.

Before Kirk was approached by WildAid, the destructive world of shark-finning was just another cause on the environmental periphery. But the way the nonprofit—devoted to ending illegal wildlife trade—sold that message resonated with her. Athletes were coming forward to champion animals on the brink—and she could help draw attention to the cause. As the Beijing summer Olympics draw near, top athletes, when not training and competing, are busy promoting themselves, pushing products and posing for sexy photo shoots. But others, like Kirk and fellow U.S. Olympic swimmer Aaron Peirsol, gymnast David Durante and beach volleyball star Misty May-Treanor, are using their star and sex appeal to bring focus to environmental issues—including water quality, endangered species and carbon emissions. These athletes don’t profess to be climate experts, but they are being watched, and they’re using that spotlight to get a green message heard. One Billion Served

“If the sand was swept away, where would we put up the volleyball courts?” —World champion beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor © Wasserman Media Group, LLC

WildAid features 15 athletes in their “World Champions for Wildlife” Campaign, including American swimmers Kirk and Amanda Beard, Ethiopian world marathon winner Haile Gebrselassie and Chinese athletes like Houston Rockets basketball star Yao Ming, that country’s most famous export (and the sport’s tallest player at 7 feet, 6 inches). Their Hollywood-produced PSAs matching celebrities with exotic animals are being shown in 80 countries, and are reaching some one billion people a week, by organization estimates. With China the largest importer of illegal wildlife products—including tiger bone and skin, ivory and shark fin—the summer Olympics in Beijing has offered the group a way to target the exact demographic that’s responsible for much of the loss of the world’s most endangered species.

“We asked ourselves, how do we cut through a country as massive as China with so little money?” says Peter Knights, one of WildAid’s founders and the creative force behind the ad-based campaign. “We wanted to evoke the Olympic spirit.” As a spokesperson for WildAid, Yao Ming made a public declaration that he would not eat shark fin soup. It generated 300 stories in China. “I’ve been in the environmental movement for 20 years,” says Knights. “I’ve done lobbying, I’ve done undercover work. Nobody has yet clued into this—you’ve got to change the consumption habits.” The group’s slogan says it simply: “When the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

Swimmer Aaron Peirsol: “I found a McDonald’s tray and bodysurfed anyway. But I was worried I might get sick.” © AMP Agency

Endangered species like sharks, tigers, rhinos and elephants are in grave danger not only from global warming and population pressures, but also from an increasingly affluent consumer base across China and India. Rhino horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat everything from flu to headaches to epilepsy. Tiger bone is used to treat muscle cramps. The Taiwanese will pay hundreds of dollars for a bowl of tiger penis soup, which is believed to have great aphrodisiac qualities, or bear paw soup, another delicacy. And the growing demand for shark fin soup among affluent Chinese is driving the disappearance of great whites, threshers and hammerheads, who Knights predicts will be gone for good without a massive awareness effort.

Tara Kirk is part of that strategy. The 26-year-old Olympic swimmer, who is equal parts muscular build and beaming smile, says the fact that she’s half Chinese made addressing shark finning an obvious choice. “Finning is a terrible practice,” she says, referring to the way poachers capture the sharks, cut off their fins and throw the animals back into the water to die. “While sharks are scary creatures when you’re swimming in open water, they are such an important part of the underwater ecosystem.”

Kirk, who holds a master’s degree in anthropology from Stanford University, has become more outspoken about environmental protection as she’s begun to apply it in her everyday life. She’s started tracking her energy savings at her Palo Alto, California, apartment. “I can’t replace the appliances,” she says. “But I hang a clothesline in the back and I started plugging the appliances into surge protectors and turning them off at night.”

Swimmer Amanda Beard is one of 15 athletes in WildAid’s “World Champions for Wildlife” Campaign. © WildAid

She keeps a certificate from Palo Alto Green on her refrigerator that reads: “Based on your estimated electric usage of 207 kWh/mo, your decision to support renewable energy will prevent 3,331 pounds of CO2, a critical greenhouse gas emission, from entering the earth’s atmosphere annually. In terms of global climate change, this is the equivalent to: 3,746 miles not driven or 199 trees planted.” For an Olympic swimmer who holds the American record in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke and measures her times in tenths of a second, the hard numbers are a comfort.

Win for the Water

Swimmers have an intimate connection with the planet. Even if their practices and meets are held indoors, where they breathe the heavy chlorine steam rising from the aqua pool water, they are beach lovers and sun worshipers at heart who spend their free time in the open ocean chasing waves.

“I just grew up around the ocean,” says Aaron Peirsol, the boyishly handsome three-time Olympic gold medal swimmer. “I was a water boy, and I did everything—surfing, bodysurfing. I was a junior lifeguard in California.” He tells a story about a particular day in Southern California three years ago when he realized just how filthy the nation’s beaches had become. He was walking along Newport Beach during spring break, following the first rain of the year. All the beaches were closed because of the red tide, when harmful algae blooms in what’s been linked to municipal sewage treatment runoff and urban runoff from lawns containing nitrates and other chemicals. “It was a really nice day, with five-foot surf,” he says, “but I was grossed out by all the stuff on the beach. I found a McDonald’s tray and bodysurfed anyway. But I was worried I might get sick.”

Peirsol wanted to work with a conservation organization and found a ready partner in Oceana, an international group dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and its inhabitants, whose board of directors includes actor-activists Ted Danson (who cofounded Oceana in 2001) and Sam Waterson. The nonprofit has set Peirsol up with his own campaign and website, Race for the Oceans, to directly link his training efforts with fundraising for their causes. Toyota’s athlete program Engines of Change backed Race for the Oceans with a $10,000 grant. “They choose their cause,” says Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokesperson. “We wanted to be sure the philanthropic effort was relevant for the athlete and something they’re deeply passionate about.”

Ethiopian world marathon winner Haile Gebrselassie supports WildAid. © WildAid

The site features a Peirsol blog, with a few intermittent posts from the swimmer. “Blogging was Oceana’s idea,” he says. “It’s a way to educate people. And when I travel over the world, I see things that stand out—walking on a beach in Melbourne or seeing a red tide in Costa Rica.” Once the summer Olympics (where he’s got a confident shot at taking home a few medals, having won three gold medals for the backstroke in the 2004 Athens Olympics) have ended, Peirsol will focus his attention more fully on the campaign. They’re coordinating an open-water race that will generate funding much the way walk-a-thons do. It’s a way, says Oceana’s communications manager, Juliana Stein, “to have a place where swimming fans and swimmers can get informed, and sponsor his miles.”

Though it’s a relatively young organization, Oceana’s focus on habitat protection, over-fishing and pollution has paid off. “We choose campaigns that we can win in three to five years,” says Stein. Recent victories include freezing over one million square miles of ocean floor from bottom trawling across the West Coast and parts of the East Coast, a rejection in the E.U. Parliament from the French being allowed to driftnet in the Mediterranean Sea and pushing chlorine plants like ERCO Worldwide and Pioneer Industries to convert to mercury-free technologies.

A Higher Bar

Olympic gymnast David Durante wants to green the Olympic Training Centers. © AMP Agency

For other Olympic athletes, an environmental cause offers an outlet—a way beyond the confines of their sport and the rigors of daily training. Twenty-eight-year-old gymnast David Durante has spent the last four years living at an Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with some 170 resident athletes who train year-round for both the summer and winter games. Though Durante has yet to compete in the Olympics, the muscular Stanford grad has risen to the top of the U.S. men’s gymnastics team, a confident competitor who won the national all-around title at the 2007 U.S gymnastics championships. Since then, he’s been on an intense training regimen that included a trip to Beijing for an Olympic test event. “There is definitely a certain chemical thing going on in the air there,” Durante observes, “but we’re not an endurance event, we’re in an arena.”

And it’s while lifting, stretching, flipping and balancing inside that Colorado Springs training center that Durante decided there were serious green steps to be taken at home. He formed the OTC Green (Olympic Training Center Green) committee, made up of himself, a cyclist, a fencer, a pentathlete, a shooter, a wrestler and a wrestling coach. Their goals, he says, are to green the facilities, starting with the athletes.

“First we want to change the mindset of the athletes,” Durante says, “stuff to make them understand the small changes they can make in their lifestyles. Once we’ve distributed information, each department will be assigned a person to see what changes can be made and all the information will be presented to the head of the Olympic Training Center.” Finally, Durante hopes to institute some real structural changes at the three national training centers—the other two are located in Chula Vista, California, and Lake Placid, New York—from a serious recycling program to rooftop solar panels.

Basketball star Yao Ming made a public declaration that he would not eat shark fin soup. © WildAid

The possibilities for solar panels have captured the attention of world champion beach volleyball player Misty May-Treanor, too. She and husband Matt Treanor, a catcher for the Florida Marlins baseball team, are considering them as part of their home remodel next year. “Our neighbors have solar panels, and I think it’s great,” May-Treanor says. She and teammate Kerri Walsh, the brunette and blonde leggy powerhouses, respectively, don’t have the pressure of the unknown going into the Beijing Olympics—only pressure to maintain their incredible domination of the sport. The team won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics without losing a single set and followed that up with 50 straight match victories. They hope to be the first athletes to ever repeat as Olympic champions in beach volleyball. And unlike other Olympic athletes who will compete inside Beijing’s impressive (and energy-efficient) arenas and stadiums, May-Treanor and Walsh will be playing on an outdoor arena with imported sand.

“I am not too concerned with the air quality as I head into Beijing,” says May-Treanor.”I have played in other cities in China and never had an issue.” In the city’s relentless quest to offer green games and clear skies, Beijing, one of the world’s most polluted cities, has pledged to cut its traffic in half during the August 8-24 Olympics, and to shutter factories in five surrounding provinces.

For a player who depends on clean beaches for her sport, May-Treanor’s environmental attention instead tends to coastlines, where she’s witnessed enough erosion and trash to leave her unsettled. “At some of the beaches by where we practice, signs of erosion are very noticeable,” she says.”If the sand was swept away, where would we put up the volleyball courts?”

“I”ve been in the environmental movement for 20 years,” says Peter Knights of WildAid. “I”ve done lobbying, I”ve done undercover work. Nobody has yet clued into this—you”ve got to change the consumption habits.” © WildAid

Even though the player isn’t affiliated with any major environmental group or launching any high-profile eco-campaigns, she’s paying attention. She says she reuses plastic bags, prefers extra layers to upping the thermostat and has switched to environmentally safe cleaners and detergent.

Perhaps what’s most appealing about Olympic athletes advancing environmental causes is that they’re still learning, and reaching out to others to do the same. They’re discovering the catastrophic changes happening to the world’s oceans, air and wildlife as they go, through firsthand experiences and news accounts, and using their particular talents—whether sponsoring a swim race or filming a PSA—to bring attention to the cause. In simply getting involved, despite constant training schedules, competitions and those gold medals dangling overhead, they’re making a statement.

Whether in Olympic training or environmental action, the words from Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the International Olympic Committee, apply: “The most important thing is not to win but to take part.”