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A Healthy Environment is Vital for Thriving Sport

Neil Heath of Paddle UK talks about how sports organisations are at the forefront of campaigning at the intersection of health, sports participation and environmental restoration

June 2024

Health, sports participation and the environment (especially the state of our rivers) are some of the big issues on voters’ minds as we approach polling day on 4th July. These issues are intrinsically linked.

Paddle UK (formerly British Canoeing) is highly respected in terms of our environmental and sustainability work. As a sports National Governing Body (NGB) we lead the way in showing how sport can push positive change.

Blue spaces are where our athletes train and they’re also the playgrounds for our members and millions of other people. We want the best for our waterways and do our bit to look after them. Our Access and Environment team spend so much time trying to change things for the better.

Our biggest initiative is the Big Paddle Clean-up, where thousands of people spend a few hours or more clearing their rivers of junk. Our Paracanoe team, some of who are heading to Paris, also braved the cold and wet weather in early May to hold a clean-up on the River Trent. Olympic slalom athlete Adam Burgess has seen first hand the impact of river pollution and has been using his profile to highlight the issue.

The Big Paddle Clean-up has grown each year and the response has been phenomenal. This year’s two weeks of action ended on 9 June. Those who took part are now logging their finds. Last year over 2,600 paddlers took part in a bid to clear their local waterways of junk and plastic pollution, while raising more public awareness of the issue. About 1,800 huge sacks were filled containing 6,767 plastic bottles, 2,739 glass bottles, 4,403 cans and 7,682 food packaging items.

In April, Paddle UK joined six other national sport governing bodies calling for clean open water for people to enjoy doing what they love. Along with British Rowing, British Triathlon, the Angling Trust, GB Outrigger, Royal Yachting Association and Swim England, we represent about 450,000 members, elite athletes and many others across the country who rely on our waters for sport and recreation.

We want healthy and nature-rich blue spaces for everyone to enjoy. We know how important these places are for our physical and mental health. The Alliance set out priorities including faster action on pollution and recognising all recreational water users when it came to policy making. We all know water quality and pollution is one the biggest concerns for all users of blue space right now.

It’s rightly an election issue, and judging by the media reaction to the Alliance it shows how the power of sport can help with the same goals as our environmental organisations. Our friends at British Triathlon did a tremendous job of piquing the interest of BBC Sport and in particular the Head Of Editorial Sustainability, David Lockwood, who prepared a story on the day of the launch.

We all played our part in getting the message across on TV, radio and in the newspapers. It was marvellous to see how we successfully joined forces and demanded the same actions. I joined Ben Seal, Paddle UK’s Head of Access and Environment, at a lake near Rochdale for an interview with the BBC Sport editor Dan Roan.

Dan has tackled stories about human rights, child abuse, racism and anti-doping. If he’s the one doing the interview, you know it’s a big story and it’ll lead bulletins. It felt a little daunting, but we were not the ones polluting the rivers with sewage and plastic junk, we had nothing to hide. However, Dan and his producer needed us to be absolutely clear on what the issues are and what we want the authorities to do about it. It focussed our message somewhat.

It helped that Dan Roan is a paddleboarder, so we had plenty to talk about before the interview. While we waited, the cameraman filmed children during a sailing lesson. It was a pleasure to see how much fun they were having - reinforcing the message how important blue space is.

Ben and Mel Hyde, from the Royal Yachting Association, (along with the children), were brilliant interviewees, and the package went out on BBC Breakfast, the News Channel, and all the major BBC news bulletins. British Triathlon’s chief executive Ruth Daniel did live interviews throughout the day, and representatives from the other organisations, were also interviewed for other programmes.

We collected 25 stories and news articles including by The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky News and The Independent, throughout the day. Incredible. Members of the Clean Water Sports Alliance will continue to push for urgent change. We want polluters to be held to account, all sewage outlets to have compulsory monitoring and we’d like the creation of a centralised information hub for all water sports users.

We are also advocating a change from ‘bathing waters' to ‘recreation waters' within the policies of the next government to recognise the wide range of activities enjoyed by the public who depend on clean water.

You don’t always hear about the good work that sport organisations do for the environment, but I assure you it is playing its part and fighting hard for what we love.

Neil Heath is Senior PR & Communications Officer at Paddle UK. Follow @paddle_uk

The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.