Olympic sailing champion Hannah Mills, MBE, is no stranger to beating the odds. But the 32-year-old admits that her latest challenge could be the toughest yet. Building on her Olympic success, Hannah wants to raise awareness about the state of the planet’s environment, which means as much to her as sport.
Hannah won a silver medal at the Olympic Games London 2012 and a gold medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. She is also a two-time world champion in the women's 470 class, having won in 2012 and 2019.
“Every single beach, marina and harbour that I’ve sailed in is littered with plastic,” she says.
“That’s opened the gateway for me into the world of sustainability. I want to use my sporting background, networks and profile to raise awareness, change behaviour and influence others on environmental issues.”
In 2019, Hannah launched the Big Plastic Pledge, which aims to eliminate single-use plastics from sport. Then, last year, she was chosen alongside Norwegian rower Martin Helseth to be a European Climate Pact Ambassador.
Despite her busy schedule preparing for Tokyo 2020, Hannah took some time out to talk about harnessing the Olympic values and ideals for the good of the planet.
Hannah, what links your passion for sustainability with your passion for the Olympic Games?
I remember, even when I was a little girl, feeling there was something incredibly awe-inspiring about the Olympic Games. They have this amazing power to give hope to people of all ages around the world. Today, whenever I go into schools and talk to the kids, they are still completely blown away by the Olympic Games and what they represent. I feel we have a huge opportunity and responsibility to capitalise on that awe and amazement.
The Olympic dream is all about being the best you can – and that doesn’t just mean competing or winning medals; it means being a good global citizen. There are many ways to keep that dream alive, and we can all contribute in our own way. Sport inspires, unites, crosses boundaries and reaches all corners of the globe. If the entire global sporting community unites, also on issues beyond sport itself, our impact can be huge. We’re already seeing the momentum grow today – for example with sports organisations raising their ambition to address climate change – so we have a huge opportunity for greater impact.
Can the Games inspire global audiences to take better care of the planet?
The Olympic Games are such a huge global event; they create an opportunity to showcase solutions and inspire change. They provide an amazing platform – around half the global population watches at least some of the Games on television. I feel we have a responsibility to use this platform to highlight the need for all of us to live and operate in a more responsible manner. That’s where the athletes come in, and that’s why I believe that elite sportsmen and women can and should engage in sustainability.
You have mastered sailing to the highest possible levels. But do you think that sailing also gives you special insight into the environmental crisis?
I started sailing at the age of eight and, like most kids of that age, I didn’t really think much about sustainability or the environment. The first time I really started to ask questions – I was about 10 or 11 – was when a piece of plastic got stuck under my boat, and I remember thinking: “What on earth is that doing floating around here about a mile from land?” It was different then. It wasn’t such a big issue in the media, but I started to notice it more and more, and I was appalled about what I was seeing in the water.
It’s quite a leap from becoming aware of the problem to actually doing something about it – what made you take real action?
I realised I didn’t know much about plastic pollution or climate change. It wasn’t really something I learned about at school. I probably didn’t read enough because I was too busy sailing! But about six or seven years ago I started doing my own research. The more I read and the more I asked questions, the more alarming it became, and I started understanding a lot more about the challenges we’re facing. After the Olympic Games Rio 2016, I was faced with a big choice: do I carry on to Tokyo, or do I get more involved in helping tackle these challenges? Then I thought: “I can do both; I can carry on with this amazing sport and hopefully compete and win another gold medal, but at the same time I can raise awareness and talk about these other issues that I’m just as passionate about.” So that’s what I’m doing, and even when I stop competing, I’ll continue with this work.
Tell us about the Big Plastic Pledge, which you launched in 2019 with the IOC’s support. What made you pick that particular issue?
The thing about plastic is once you start noticing it, you see it everywhere. It’s very obvious and very visible – and in a way that should make it easier to tackle. So plastic waste is something we can all help with – competitors, spectators and organisers. It’s a no-brainer!
You have achieved so much already, especially in terms of building awareness. But how do you see the campaign going forward?
I guess for me, and probably a lot of other people, plastic is a kind of gateway into the broader topic of sustainability. As I study and learn more, I also understand more about climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions. It’s quite overwhelming. You realise that it’s all connected, and everything needs addressing, so I have started to think about how we can incorporate some of the other sustainability challenges into what we are doing with the Big Plastic Pledge. So going forward I see myself engaging with the wider problem. I may not always be a competing athlete, but I will always be using this platform that has been given to me to raise awareness on environmental and broader sustainability topics. That’s the plan.
The sports community also has a footprint, which we are working hard to reduce. But how do you feel about yours? Is it possible to be passionate about sport and passionate about the environment at the same time?
Yes, of course! You can’t get away from it: like any other industry, sport has a footprint, and of course that plays on my mind a good deal. Because, of course, there is sometimes a fear of being labelled a hypocrite. What I would say though is that the opportunities to inspire change far outweigh the negatives. We can raise awareness and visibility, create a platform for something positive.
Is sport part of the problem or part of the solution?
Both! But as an eco-conscious athlete I want to be part of the solution. Having a public profile and being out there competing, we can talk about it, showcase solutions, make others aware and make sure we do our part. I can make more of a difference by being in the public eye and talking about it. For example, when I came back from Rio I did loads of talks and events in schools, and every single talk I do is 50 per cent about the Olympic Games and 50 per cent about various sustainability topics, such as plastic pollution. That feels like the right balance to me, talking about the inspiring nature of the Olympic Games and linking it to some of the issues we are all facing. Sport in itself can inspire people to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and it can also inspire people to engage with bigger causes like climate change and the environment.
An athlete’s life is so busy, with training, competitions, preparations, etc. Would you encourage other athletes to add to this relentless programme and become more involved in global challenges?
There is a point in an athlete’s life when it is all about sport and competing, and that’s to be expected because training is so challenging and very demanding. But with success comes responsibility. And so I do think that, at a certain point in your career, there is a need to use that success for a wider cause. I feel strongly about that.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic shaped your thinking about the state of the world?
The pandemic has woken more people up to the impact of humans on the planet.
The pandemic has also changed the significance of the Tokyo Games. People are just desperate for hope and inspiration, and the Games have the potential to reignite people’s inspiration to achieve amazing things. The timing is crucial – COVID-19 will clearly be with us for a long time, but hopefully we are through the worst of it.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I hope the Games will have a bigger impact than just sport. My dream is to unite all Olympic and professional athletes around the globe and to drive the changes needed. I am very much an optimist.