Eco-athletes — sports figures who take on environmental issues — are a rare breed as compared to athletes who get involved with social causes, such as cancer and domestic violence. There are several oft-cited reasons: environmental topics can be overly complex; the political nature of “green” issues can be daunting to some athletes; and the relative lack of financial muscle behind environmental causes means athletes often look to those that are better funded.
But there are athletes who, despite the obstacles, take a strong stand on behalf of the environment. Two such figures, Sir Ben Ainslie — skipper of Land Rover BAR, Britain’s challenger for the 35th America’s Cup — and Leilani Münter*, the self-described “Eco, Vegan, Hippie Chick with a race car,” met up at a recent America’s Cup prep race in Chicago. They shared the challenges and opportunities around making their sports and teams more sustainable, why issues such as environmental sustainability and climate change resonate with them, and how they can potentially learn from each other.*
Sir Ben Ainslie is a man with a laser-like focus.
That focus helped him win sailing gold medals in four straight Olympics and an America’s Cup in 2013 as a member of Oracle Team USA; and it is serving him and his team well as he navigates the marathon of training, prep races and finals in his attempt to win Great Britain’s first-ever America’s Cup in 2017 as skipper of the Land Rover BAR team.
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But Ainslie and his equally focused team broke from training recently. To watch a movie: Racing Extinction, the powerful 2015 documentary film that highlighted the issues of endangered species and mass extinction. These issues are powerful, life-affirming motivators for NASCAR racer Leilani Münter, the “eco-vegan-hippie chick with a race car” and an on-camera presence in the film.
Ainslie and the team were moved by the movie — they are supporting the film’s “#StartWith1Thing” challenge, encouraging individuals to take environmental action — and found common ground with Münter. As it happens, Land Rover BAR is going for an unprecedented double: win the America’s Cup while — with the help of Exclusive Sustainability Partner, 11th Hour Racing — becoming the most sustainable sports team in the UK and beyond.
So when 11th Hour Racing invited Münter to speak at a public screening of Racing Extinction as part of the festivities surrounding the America’s Cup World Series races in Chicago in June, a meeting with Ainslie became a foregone conclusion.
Seeing the film and meeting Münter also inspired Ainslie and the team, already at the forefront of “green” sports, to deepen their commitment to the environment.
“[Seeing Racing Extinction] really drove home a number of issues,” Ainslie offered. “It means the work we are doing with the team around sustainability — whether that is 100 percent renewable electricity at our base, eliminating single-use plastics, seeking innovative ways to reduce fuel consumption, researching the life cycle of the materials and boats we use, promoting biodiversity, engaging with our local communities and younger generations, as well as our meatless Mondays that we launched as a result of us watching the film – is all really important.”
That the Land Rover BAR skipper cited her as the inspiration for the team’s move to Meatless Mondays made Münter’s day.
“This makes me so happy!” she exclaimed. She believes that Land Rover BAR’s high global profile will help plant environmental action seeds in the sailing community and other sports.
Sailing and auto-racing share common ‘green’ ground
The Ainslie-Münter conversation covered more than Meatless Mondays, including the common goals sailing and auto racing share in terms of reducing emissions and waste.
“Both sports are designing, manufacturing and competing in high-performance, carbon fiber racing machines,” Ainslie said. “Both are powered by fuel — the difference is where we get the fuel from. We obviously use the wind, which is totally renewable — however, we do support the test and race boats on the water with fuel-powered support rigid inflatable boats (RIBS) and we have looked at innovative ways to reduce these emissions.
“In addition, we are looking at the end of life of carbon fiber, as we want to help drive an industry solution creating a more circular approach to the use of composites before it becomes a major issue. Like us, NASCAR is promoting the use of biofuels as well as solar to power team bases and tracks, which is excellent. And Formula E, a new international open wheel series, uses fully electric cars for their circuit.”
Given that Indy cars, like America’s Cup boats, are also made of carbon fiber, Münter said she hopes to see sailing and auto-racing governing bodies provide encouragement and incentives to teams to recycle carbon fiber boats and race cars at end of life.
Preserving endangered species was another topic that got both Ainslie and Münter energized.
“We are taking direct action to help reverse the loss of native species at our home base in Portsmouth — housing 1,000 adult oysters as a pilot project to help restore the collapsed Solent oyster fishery, which has been affected by environmental changes, predation from invasive non-native species, and unsustainable fishing practices,” Ainslie explained. “We also have bee hotels, and an urban garden with flowering plants to support the bees. The team communicates about all these projects to our fans but also to industry – whether that is sport, the marine industry or the construction industry; our goal is to inspire excellence and drive positive change.”
Münter takes a more macro, multimedia approach to species preservation, bringing attention to the issue through her film work in Racing Extinction, as well as in writing. Her advocacy for the vegan lifestyle, solar power, and electric cars comes through in her public speaking appearances. Münter also “walks the ‘eco, vegan’ walk” in her personal life: The solar panels on the roof of her home provide enough clean energy to power not only her home but also her Tesla Model S.
Obviously, these two racers share a need to push the envelope - whether the subject is preserving endangered species or figuring out how to go a couple of millimeters per second faster than before – which bodes well both for the future of their sports and the planet.