Recently I was asked what legacy I’d like to leave, and at the time I wasn’t sure why, but the question made me feel uncomfortable.

I responded by saying that as one of over 8 billion people on this planet, why would I believe that I can leave a legacy? 

Since, I’ve reflected on what I didn’t like about the question. 

And I think it’s due to my thoughts being tied up in Jon Alexander’s ideas of becoming a citizen not a consumer, and the use of the term legacy in sport.

From my experience legacies have predominantly been associated with sports – measured in results, PBs, rankings, trophies and record times. 

Over the last couple of years I’ve started questioning the meaning of record times. They’re only records until they’re broken. And if the record’s broken because someone has access to a higher level of training, nutrition or better shoes (I’m looking at you Adidas with your single-use trainer), does any of it mean much at all? Is it just a reflection of privilege? 

Are these sporting legacies long lasting, or even meaningful? 

We live in a time like no other. Sports have exploded in popularity, in tandem with a growth of wealth in the West. Wealth that has afforded us the spare time to partake and enjoy these sports.

Times are changing and as we continue into the various planetary crises, our thoughts will turn to something else, like survival.

To some that might sound unlikely. But, in parts of the world this future has already emerged. It’s coming to the West – at the moment our privilege insulates us from the major effects. 

I live on the edge of a ski resort that is already affected by climate change. I can see a point where the industry collapses, and with that collapse, what becomes of the legacies? World champions, fastest times, rankings – these become meaningless. 

And if we’ve changed the climate enough to lose skiing then we’ve changed it enough to have far bigger problems, our privilege will erode.

Why do we even give sporting achievements legacy status in the first place?

I think that we’ve been trained to. These legacies are part of the consumer story, they’re often about individual, or small group success.

Sports brands want us to think that our legacy is based on individual achievements – they reduce us to our performance, with a focus on the self. They sell us the story that we must be the best possible version of ourselves, and that we need their products to achieve that. 

An entire industry has been created around this story. Selling us watches that record our every movement, with measures that are constantly evolving to make us chase what? A slightly faster or fitter version of ourselves. 

Citizen vs Consumer and Legacy 

I believe a meaningful legacy can only be built through collective action. Women’s right to vote, the end of slavery, civil rights, and national health systems were all legacies that may have had figureheads but ultimately emerged from a consensus.  

I’m starting to see signs of collective action that could lead to real legacies emerging from sport. 

Take the recent completion of the Barkley Ultra Marathon (a grueling 100 mile trail race through inhospitable terrain) by Jasmin Paris. An incredible feat of endurance, Jasmin was the first woman to complete the course. I’m sure she will go on to encourage many women to take on challenges.

What if that isn’t Jasmin’s biggest legacy from the race?

Jasmin deliberately shunned any brand sponsorship and completed the race by wearing kit that she has long used.  A “tried and tested” approach, over buying shiny and new for the sake of it. 

This could become a real legacy. A story that says Jasmin completed the event and didn’t need the latest shiny new equipment to do it. She did it as a citizen not as a consumer.

We cannot go on depleting the planets resources in the name of short-lived legacies. For us to have a chance of continuing to exist, we need more people to think like Jasmin. We can partake in the most difficult challenges, wearing whatever we like. 

The good news is, that Jasmin is part of something bigger. 

Jasmin co-founded a group called The Green Runners that, amongst many things, are encouraging the use of reusable cups at running events, helping reduce the amount of single use plastic that winds up wrecking our planet. 

Does this mean that this group of runners will have a slightly slower time as they fill the cups at each feed station? Yes. 

Will their collective action reduce the amount of plastic in the oceans and environment? Yes. 

Could this be the start to the end of our insatiable desire for single use plastic? I hope so.

Which matters more? Our race times or our future? 

Another example of athletes using their profile to raise the ante is snowboarder Calum Macintyre. He’s taking direct action that has seen him wind up in court on a few occasions and is shining a light on our right to protest. Or should I say our diminishing rights.

Calum speaks eloquently and brings a much needed, balanced and intelligent view to protest. You can find out more by listening to his recent appearance on the Looking Sideways podcast.

My Current Legacy

Another reason I dislike thoughts of legacy is to do with inner reflection.

I feel that my legacy is wrapped up in a system that is destroying the natural world and oppressing people less fortunate.

My life has left a trail of single-use plastic, pollution and emissions. My outdoor sports have needed kit – with every bit I’ve ever disposed of likely in landfill, incinerated or polluting foreign lands. 

My sports pursuits have been at the expense of poorly-paid garment workers, and capital stolen from the global South. Through sport, I have had an unbalanced transactional relationship with the natural world. 

I didn’t mean to create the legacy I described above. I’m not intentionally trying to do bad – it’s just that I’ve grown up in a story that has shaped me. Jon Alexander calls it the consumer story, “a foundational story of humans as inherently self-interested and competitive.”

It’s a story that hides the true impacts of my products and life behind glossy advertisements, political messages focused on GDP, and an onus on measuring my true worth in possessions and individual achievements.   

After much introspection, I recognise that my impact on the planet isn’t great – which is a good starting block for change.

Jon argues that the opposite to a consumer is a citizen: “In the Citizen Story, we see ourselves as the creative, capable, caring creatures we are. We realise that all of us are smarter than any of us. We get involved.”

What legacy do I want to leave?

Back to the initial question… I think a meaningful legacy can only be achieved as a collective. 

The work of Calum and Jasmin will only make a difference if more of us join them. 

Athletes are increasingly worried about being called hypocrites when talking about climate change. I don’t see this worry as a bad thing.

I used my own hypocrisy as the first step to understanding my role in the system and this was the beginning of change. I believe the key to moving forward involves a lot of internal work, and that is the work of the moment, fixing our problems starts with each of us. 

It’s worth recognising that Calum, Jasmin and I are still hypocrites. The important thing is we’ve got to a space where our hypocrisy isn’t stopping us from taking action. 

Taking action is the hard bit. It can feel uncomfortable, risky, and involve an element of bravery. Fortunately though, stepping into that space won’t be as lonely as it was a few years ago – everyday more people do it.  

Outdoor sports were built on adventure, perseverance and risk. It’s time our community embraced these origins, and got involved.

We should unite behind people like Calum and Jasmin – and join collective action.

The uncomfortable step I took was to quit my career, and co-found the Re-Action Collective. 

Heather and I started Re-Action 18 months ago, and in that time we’ve worked hard to allow its direction to naturally evolve. We’ve made sure that funding hasn’t restricted us to a set of outcomes. 

Which is important, as I believe as a collective, our legacy will be decided by the group. As Heather wrote recently “We see our role as guiding the ship, participating in shaping the movement and serving our members and the broader Re-Action community.”  

At Re-Action, we work collaboratively and share ideas. Sometimes these ideas stick – they’re timely, work across geographies, gain a consensus. One great example of this is the Citizen Friday campaign. 

Sometimes these ideas quickly vanish into the ether, like a world record time.

I still dislike thinking about my legacy. I’m more interested in creativity, community, giving a shit about others and creating a collective space “where all of us are smarter than any of us.”

Jon Alexander says, “we only have true agency when we work together”.

Is that how meaningful legacies are created? 

I think so.

In short

We should stop caring so much about our individual times and achievements – enjoy the outdoors and exercise for what it is.

If you’re a professional athlete at the top of your game, any legacy will be short-lived. Right now you’re privileged, so use your platform and join a growing group of people that are on the right side of history. Become a Jasmin or a Calum. If that feels like too big a step, then at least give them your support. And don’t worry about being a hypocrite, we all are.

Sport and outdoor sports can be a vehicle for change. They often involve risk and now’s the time to risk it all. Embrace that sense of adventure, look inwards, feel uncomfortable and then get involved.