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The Transformative Power of Sport with Chris Boardman

Chris Boardman is one of the UK’s most prominent walking and cycling advocates. A former professional cyclist, he won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, broke the world hour record three times and wore the yellow jersey on three separate occasions at the Tour de France.

Since then, he’s advocated for safer cycling and transformed travel in Greater Manchester as the city’s first Transport Commissioner, delivering a fully integrated transport system – the Bee Network.

As Chair of Sport England and leader of Active Travel England, Chris continues to focus on delivering sport and physical activity at community level across the country.  At Blue Earth Summit, he’ll be talking about the transformative power of sports and the outdoors.

“Almost a decade ago, my daughter asked me if we could cycle to the park – my answer shocked me but has been the motivation behind all my work since.

It was such a simple and innocent question, and the park was just a few minutes away but I said no.  I realised that even with all my cycling experience, I just didn’t feel safe taking my 8 year old out on the roads. It seemed ridiculous that with my background, I didn’t feel I could keep my daughter safe – but it really was the catalyst for me to get involved in changing that.  Not long after, Andy Burnham asked me to be his Walking and Cycling Commissioner, and six years later, the Bee Network is beginning to make travel around the Greater Manchester region safe and easy for all. When my daughter, who’s 18 now, has her own family, I want her to be able to say yes, we can ride to the park to her kids – that’s when I’ll know I’ve done a good job.

Devoting my time to promoting sport for health just seems like a good use of life.

Yes, my profile as an Olympian and athlete has given me a platform and it’s been a pleasure to be able to leverage my sporting career to make a meaningful difference in a wider arena.  It’s been a surprisingly natural transition for me – cycling is, after all, a form of transport, a sport and a great form of exercise so it’s an ideal model to promote a healthier way of life for both us and our planet.

It’s also a well proven, zero carbon mode of transport, so my Active Travel England role meshes perfectly with my role as Chair of Sport England, whose aim is to get the nation active. Sport is a wonderful, healthy and emotional thing that brings people together, it’s part of the big picture in increasing our movement and improving health. Walking or travelling by bike are two of the easiest ways to transform wellbeing. If we improve the health of the nation this way, we also decarbonise, increase the productivity of the workforce, which in turn, strengthens our economy.

The environment is central to our ability to stay healthy – that’s why the sports sector should take a leadership role in tackling climate change.

We’re seeing increasingly extreme weather and that impacts sport on a practical level. Flooding is predicted to affect a quarter of English football grounds by 2050 and cricketers face huge challenges globally as temperatures soar in places like India, Australia and the West Indies. A recent report by Deloitte on the Future of Sport warned that half of the past Winter Olympics venues would not be able to hold the Games again if we don’t limit our impact on the planet. Global warming impacts everything we do outdoors and compromises safety in sport, so it’s something we need to take really seriously.

At a grassroots level, the sports sector is a massive employer, so a change in climate, selfishly, affects us and our ability to deliver – but there’s also a macro reason for investing in our planet.  After all, we’re all part of a society and if we don’t make changes, we aren’t going to be able to carry on doing the things we love to do.  So it’s about health, climate and quality of life for us all.  

It’s vital we use our position at Sport England to affect change.

We’re doing that by firstly leading by example. We still have work to do and we’re slightly behind the curve in focusing on decarbonisation within the business.  Like many sectors, sport requires a lot of travel so we really need to look at changing expectations and using lower carbon transport.

After this, we’ll be embedding this expectation into funding agreements – making them conditional on good management of environmental impact.  We are in a position to require best practice of all the people and organisations we work with, and it’s important we help that transition away from carbon dependency and production and educate on how we get to a lower carbon existence.  As an organisation, we recognise we can help many people to act differently – from local grounds to the governing bodies of sport.

A background in competitive sports is actually ideal for affecting change.

The benefit of an athlete’s mindset is that sport is completely results focused. It creates a discipline based on outcome, not output – and when you translate that in a business capacity, you can achieve great things.  

A defining moment in my career happened on the starting line in the 1992 Olympics. There I was, poised to compete for a medal yet I had huge imposter syndrome. I was an unemployed carpenter, with a wife and two kids and felt I had no place at the Olympic Games. But I was working with a psychologist at the time and what he told me has stayed with me ever since. He said that elation and despair are two sides of the same coin – if you want one, you have to risk the other. The key is to anchor focus on something you can control.  By the time the starting gun fired, I had one sole thought: I’ll just be as good as I could be and see what happens.

This has helped me deal with pressure, stress and nerves throughout my career – I’m not trying to solve the world’s problems, I’m just trying to do the best I can and that’s entirely within my control. Putting this together with a sporting mindset of focusing on outcome, not output, sets you up pretty well for success.

Climate consciousness is about to become a political football – I want my voice to be heard.

In the next 12 months as we approach a general election, politicians will have to take a position on climate policy.  I believe it’s up to organisations like ours to make sure our voice is heard clearly, promoting active and  healthy lives, ensuring all sides see the value of investing in health and simple, low carbon solutions. I have so far avoided party politics – instead focus on the evidenced-backed solutions that face us all. Regardless of the colour, we’re all winning as long as governments prioritise health and low carbon living.

This work is the most important thing I’ve ever done – it feels both necessary and meaningful. Changing the way we move to keep a nation healthy has to be a good use of life.”

Chris Boardman’s Keynote discussion “The Transformative Power of Sports and the Outdoors” can be found on the main stage at 4.30pm on Thursday 12 October, 2023.


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