Olympian spirit

Read time 6min 20sec

For the past few weeks, the Olympics has been on everyone's minds, lips and status updates, as the world's biggest sporting event delivered the requisite tales of tears and triumph. News travelled across more media channels than ever before, with social networks building not only national, but global camaraderie, as the planet celebrated its prime athletes. There is something truly inspirational about the Olympics; more than any other sports event, it unifies people behind a common goal - it allows them to share in something great regardless of age, sex, social status, race, religion or political views.

If only this approach could be applied more frequently in another area of global interest - that of climate change and environmental issues. These too impact people of all backgrounds, nationalities and cultures, yet are so often marred by political bickering, self-serving attitudes and conspiracy theories.

What is needed is more climate change stories with an Olympic flavour.

Lezette Engelbrecht

While competition is fierce and the stakes are high, the Games tend to bring people together, rather than drive them apart. News reports are predominately positive, rekindling a sense of belief in what people can achieve when they put their minds to it. This 'can-do' spirit is something sorely needed in a world trying to cope with major environmental impacts - that and the conviction that changes can be made - not through superhuman abilities, but through small significant actions repeated many times over.

We need more climate change stories with an Olympic flavour - reports that uplift and inspire rather than re-hash old arguments and criticise new ideas. There are so many positive climate-related tales out there - the kinds of stories which, if they saw more column inches or airtime, would go a long way to creating a more hopeful collective outlook. Take the local example of a Green Street retrofit project in Cato Manor, where social, environmental and cost benefits were brought together through simple, low-tech solutions. No Herculean feats or high-end gadgetry - just re-kitting homes with features like compact fluorescent bulbs, insulated ceilings, and solar water heaters. The latter saw some residents experiencing hot water for the first time ever, while food gardens provide a way to be self-sufficient and potentially generate an income. Together, the solutions brought savings of 25% in energy consumption, and if extended to the country's three million low-cost houses, could save R3 billion in water and energy costs.

There are scores of other examples of initiatives where people, planet and profit mutually benefit, from village women in Zanzibar training to install solar devices, to communities growing trees which they exchange for food, clothes, and even driver's licences and school fees. There are so many positive stories out there - they just aren't being told.

Impossible is nothing

The Olympics offers a few other lessons that can be carried over to the global conversation on climate change. One is focusing on overcoming the odds rather than the odds themselves. The Games always feature moments where athletes achieve the unthinkable - Chad Le Clos beating Michael Phelps, Oscar Pistorius qualifying for the 400m, 16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen setting a new world record, Usain Bolt's mind-boggling sprint. And the world applauds as previous notions of what is possible are replaced by the feats accomplished.

These moments provide a showcase for what can be done through dedication and hard work, rather than a platform for endless bickering and cynicism. Similarly, the naysayer attitude typically accompanying discussions around dealing with climate change could do with a dose of inspiration. Moments when all the “cannots” and “will nots” fall away and people just do it. Stories of ingenuity and courage that don't only come around at four-year intervals, but demonstrate the daily triumph of adapting to circumstances. There will always be those who say the goal is too big or too difficult or too complicated. But they aren't the ones who drive the world forward. It is always easier to shoot something down than to recognise the possibility and try. But if the world is to carry on sustainably, then we will have to cultivate a culture of Olympian thinking in everything we do.

This is necessary because like the Olympic athletes' winning runs, the final race is not an isolated event - it is a culmination of hundreds of other races; of thousands of hours of preparation and training; and of a dogged refusal to give up. It's not a solo race either - athletes don't compete for themselves alone - they do it for all the people who have supported, guided and coached them, who have been there in the early hours and late nights, and shared the journey. Similarly, our race is not ours alone; our actions impact a broader movement that needs every bit as much vision, endurance and resolve as Olympic athletes apply to their training. Humans depend on each other as a collective, and our individual decisions help tip the scales in favour of making it across the finish line, or falling far, far behind.

One and all

Equally important is the fact that not only should we take part, but we are able to - whatever our position. One of the great things about the Olympics is that everyone can share in the experience; even a small village in the remotest of areas can follow their countryman's exploits on the radio. We may not all be competitors, but we create the wider network of supporters, media, government committees, medical teams, sponsors and spectators without which the Games could not function. It takes many different roles to make the event what it is, and our response to climate change and resource challenges will also require a vast array of traits and skills. As the village women from Zanzibar demonstrate, anyone can get involved where they are, in their own context, and add to the overall momentum of change. Everyone has a role; they just need to play it.

Finally, there is legacy. The Olympic Games has a long tradition of planning what it will leave behind for the host nation after the pomp and ceremony has faded. New stadiums and transport infrastructure, improved tourism, social development initiatives - they all form part of the so-called legacy of the Games, serving as a source of renewal for cities and citizens. In terms of our broader legacy, what will we, as a society, be remembered for? Will it be our excellent stewardship of planet earth? Our wisdom in managing the world's natural resources? Perhaps our foresight in planning for our children's future? At the moment, none of the above look particularly likely. But the race is not over yet - we can still decide what story our lives will tell, and whether it will be one where we turn things around in the final seconds, or give up completely, too distracted by the obstacles to even try.

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