Innes Fitzgerald was named Young Athlete of the Year at the BBC Green Sport Awards. At 17, the Great Britain long-distance runner has already made sacrifices by choosing not to attend races crucial to her athletic development because she felt it did not justify the travel. They include the 2023 World Cross Country Championships in Australia in February. A few months earlier, she decided not to take a direct flight to Italy and instead took several trains to compete at the European Cross Country Championships. Here she tells us her story…
“I live in a valley, and the top of the garden looks out on the sea, which is pretty amazing. My parents own a smallholding, which has organic fruit and veg – it has solar panels and stuff. During lockdown, I had the opportunity to connect with the natural world where I live – helping on the land while doing training and school work, so I connected myself to the world around and nature… maybe a bit more than most other people.”
“At a young age, what hit me was what was along the beach and the coast… we would always go for walks on the beach: the plastics and water pollution on the shore are what I noticed first, I think.
“I didn’t have much of a platform when I spoke out. I thought, ‘just say it and see what happens’ and from that the platform has grown a lot. Maybe with future success that will grow a bit more and then if I speak out more it gradually gets wider and wider.
“I feel powerful when I’m going around the track, like: ‘Look, I can do this.’ I seem to get stronger and stronger and chase times during the session, and at the end I’m on that little runner’s high. Just because I didn’t go to World Cross or haven’t been to the European athletics track and field… just because I didn’t have those successes doesn’t mean I’m not going to have those successes in the future or broaden my horizons or audience.
“I think a lot of the time junior events don’t have the same publicity anyway, so although I would have gained a slightly wider audience from it, I think it would have a much bigger effect at a senior champs, when so many people are watching.
“When I decided not to go, my dad said: ‘Send an email to British Athletics saying you’re not going because of that.’ And I was like: ‘Why should it be me doing this?’
“I do question that quite a lot: why sacrifice these things? Why is it me? But, at end of the day, young people have such a powerful effect. I think they have voices heard by more people. An older person doesn’t have quite the same effect, so you may as well seize it – while I’m young, when I’ve got this opportunity.
“I may as well and if it doesn’t work out, when I’m older I can do something else anyway.”
“I feel like it’s a real privilege. I never set out to achieve an award, just wanted to raise awareness on climate issues in the athletics and sporting world – trying to get more young people.
“Because I’m in that age bracket, I can reach out to them more easily so that, in years to come, up-and-coming athletes can think about what they’re doing and make decisions that are thoughtful and related to other people and their impact on the climate.
“They don’t have to sacrifice everything, just try to make people think and make more conscious decisions.
“Looking at things online and stories about other people in developing countries at the front of the crisis is deep down what hurts. Why should they suffer because of what we’re doing? Just because we’re in this privileged position doesn’t mean we should take advantage of that. We need to help these people who don’t have as much as us, and they shouldn’t be suffering.
“It’s really saddening that so many people have so much money and influence and are not doing anything to speak out about the people who are suffering because of us. I’m not saying we have to sacrifice everything, but we need to give what we can to people who need it more than we do.
“I try to shut out negativity, but if they’ve got some emotion inside them – like they’re scared or they know the truth but they don’t want you to speak about it – you feel they know there’s an issue and they just want to brush it under the carpet and they want you to brush it under the carpet as well.
“Some people are set in their ways, and we’re only going get there by picking away at them gradually and eventually we’ll get more and more people on our side.”
What people can do
“Make more ethical travel decisions when better choices are available – it’s an easy win and I just don’t know why they wouldn’t do that.
“People in power in sport should be helping to educate others to talk about the climate emergency and speak to young people and athletes, as well as older ones, about the issues at hand, and allow them to voice concerns and take that into consideration on their behalf when making decisions they don’t have control over, such as wider travel policies.
“I think that’s what we want in the future. It’s really difficult, and I do know why other – often much more high-profile – athletes don’t talk: it’s stressful and a lot to deal with when you’re trying to get to the top of your game. You don’t want anything else to get your way; do your training and that’s it.
“I do sympathise with people who don’t speak about it because it’s easier not to, but looking into the future we need more people to speak. Anyone who’s got any influence and following or audience needs to share the concerns and speak about climate emergency as much as they can.”
Innes Fitzgerald was speaking to Matt Warwick and David Lockwood