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

By Belli, Brita | E Magazine, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

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


Belli, Brita, E Magazine


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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 swimmers 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.

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One Billion Served

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."

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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. …

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