PtG Comment 05.12.2023

Just stopping oil? The rise of climate protests at sporting events

Disruptive climate protests at sports events are a major new development for environmental activism and the fight for meaningful action on climate change.

The British climate activist group Just Stop Oil began disrupting major sports events in mid-March 2022. Several English Premier League (EPL) matches were targeted within the space of days, resulting in pitch invasions at Emirates Stadium, Goodison Park, Molineux Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. In each instance protestors attached themselves to goalposts in an effort to delay the match. 

This tactic has since been emulated internationally. In France, members of the group Derniere Renovation chained themselves together in the middle of the 2022 Tour de France cycling route. In Australia, a former professional rugby league player, Mark McLinden, ran onto the field during the 2022 National Rugby League Grand Final. He wore a t-shirt that read 'END COAL GAS & OIL' and attempted to tie himself to the goalposts at one end of the stadium.

Climate action is a new approach to political protest in sport

Political protest at sporting events has a long history. It encompasses the likes of British suffragette Emily Davison interrupting the Derby in 1913 (at the cost of her own life), the Black Power Salute podium protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and mass anti-apartheid demonstrations against the 1981 rugby union tour of New Zealand by the South African Springboks. 

Yet, the actions of Just Stop Oil represent a new, radically evolved approach in the context of political protest and sport. As events are replayed and discussed across news, broadcast, online and social media, these protests commandeer sporting spectacle to communicate a clear message about the need for action on the climate crisis. They also spearhead a multifaceted climate action movement.

Police and activists at Berlin Marathon

Climate activists from the group "Last Generation" attempt to disrupt the Berlin marathon on September 24, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Christian Mang / Getty Images

Such protests arise from devolved social movement structures that share and multiply protest tactics. Similar tactics are watched and utilised by (at best) loosely affiliated activist groups that give the appearance of planned and co-ordinated protest action. Halting play by making a mess with orange confetti, paint or powder is a readily recognisable tactic associated with Just Stop Oil. But the German group Letzte Generation also mimicked this tactic by spilling orange paint across the road at the 2023 Berlin Marathon.

Disruptive actions provoke strong disapproval by some fans, media commentators and politicians. But they also appeal to a targeted audience and operate in concert with the climate action campaigns of more moderate environmental groups. For instance, after storming the stage at an esports event in London, Just Stop Oil replied to criticism that they would have broader appeal if they used less disruptive methods with the following post on X/Twitter: ‘That's what Friends of The Earth/WWF [World Wide Fund for Nature] are for.’

Just Stop Oil are also particularly adept at creating their own media content and leveraging other platforms. After a Just Stop Oil representative’s televised appearance on Good Morning Britain drew comparisons to the 2021 political satire film Don’t Look Up, the group successfully turned this into a meme that garnered further media attention. In the days following their EPL match protests, the group also uploaded a series of videos to YouTube that recorded each pitch invasion, editing together in-situ footage with pre-recorded messages by activists delivered straight to camera. The intended effect is to personalise and rationalise their actions.

Video below: A young supporter of Just Stop Oil ran onto the pitch during an Everton vs Newcastle United game in 2022 to demand an end to the British government's new fossil fuel supply projects. In this video, footage from the action is combined with the activist's explanation for his actions. Video from Just Stop Oil's YouTube channel.

The actions garner sympathy from athletes

Tied to these tactics are simultaneously straightforward and momentous demands as governments hesitate while the climate crisis advances. Just Stop Oil wants the UK government to end fossil fuels production. Dernière Renovation wants the French government to commit to energy-efficient renovation of buildings. Extinction Rebellion rebels against human-driven extinction on Earth. Letzte Generation activists assert they represent the final generation able to forestall global climate chaos. 

Just Stop Oil’s message – if not their means of spreading it – even garners sympathy from selected sports stars whose events are disrupted. Formula One’s Lewis Hamilton and tennis’ Coco Gauff express support for climate action even after their sports were targeted by protesters.

Athletes are also, on occasion, directly involved in protests. British Olympic gold-medal winning canoeist, Etienne Stott MBE, has been arrested alongside other Extinction Rebellion activists after occupying Waterloo Bridge in London in 2020 and gluing himself to an oil tanker in 2022.

The targeting of live sports events represents a new stage in the history of sport and protest, aiming to harness the visibility of professional sport to draw mass attention and demand action on the climate crisis.

Just Stop Oil representatives claim that football in particular is an ideal platform for their message because of its scale and reach, noting it is ‘the biggest cultural phenomenon there is’. It is also appropriate given the scale and reach of the climate crisis, which threatens both the future of sport and the planet.

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