Ensure sustainability efforts by sports ministry don’t end up as sportswashing

Cream puffs and a cordial drink, among others, were served during a dialogue session with editors organised by the Youth and Sports Ministry at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur last month.

However, it was the grapes that caught the attention of the ministry’s newly-minted secretary-general, Dr K. Nagulendran.

Right after the session ended, Nagulendran admitted changes were required within the sport ecosystem, and that included reducing the carbon footprint in the transport chain – from harvesting, to delivering imported fruits like grapes.

In a casual chat with the writer, he spoke about serving local fruits instead, and to be mindful of actions that could, directly or indirectly, be environmentally unfriendly.

The soft-spoken Nagulendran is fully aware of the environmental concerns, not only in Malaysia, but across the globe. After all, he was the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry’s deputy secretary-general (planning and culture of science) before earning his well deserved promotion to the Youth and Sports Ministry.

His work then focused on science diplomacy, enculturation of science, social innovation, and foresight, and science data. Such a scope would widely be seen as alien in Menara KBS.

This is because the mantra had always been to simply jump on the popularity bandwagon to win the popularity contest. The last notable effort in sports diplomacy that included Malaysian athletes was the ‘ping pong diplomacy’ in 1971. And that too, was initiated by China in its attempt to open its doors to the world.

The enculturation of science, social innovation, and foresight, and science data, had been left to the National Sports Institute – an agency under the ministry. And that too, is often elite athlete-centric.

The effort to get Nagulendran to come up with sustainable initiatives at the federal level is much welcomed. The five key areas to look at are carbon footprint, packaging, products, waste, and water.

Recycling efforts, reducing wastage, and being environmentally friendly are key elements in ensuring that sports-related activities do not end up being a pollutant of sorts. This is increasingly critical when Malaysia hosts major events, which include the upcoming SEA Games in 2027.

This is where Nagulendran and his team will need to refer to the reports and the yet-to-be published accounts of the 2017 SEA Games held in Kuala Lumpur, in order to better understand what was done right, and not so right, and to help better allocate funds for sustainability efforts.

With the advancements in technology, e-ticketing should be embraced by all, regardless of how big or small the competition is. Apparel donned by athletes and officials should be environmentally friendly.

Food served in and around sporting initiatives should be mindful of the carbon footprint, and more importantly, healthy.

Contrary to popular belief, such efforts aren’t expensive.

The sports industry has been infused with a corporate-like approach and, as such, demands lasting and impactful changes, to move in the right direction.

This move, however, should not end up as sportswashing – an attempt to enhance one’s reputation for personal gain. This should not be another popularity contest.

The other challenge will be in ensuring that these sustainability initiatives continue, regardless of who helms the ministry.

Real changes can be made, starting from the grassroots. The notion should be explained thoroughly and continuously to get the buy-in of the masses.

Once the culture of sustainable practices is adopted in competitions organised in neighbourhoods and by communities, the same will naturally be adopted at the higher levels.

Main image: Youth and Sports Ministry, Malaysia

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