Should Australia’s major sports stars really be defined by fossil fuel companies trying to look good?

·12-min read
<span>Photograph: Sean Garnsworthy/AAP</span>
Photograph: Sean Garnsworthy/AAP

What is the cost to athletes and sports of accepting money from an influential denier of global warming? And what is the cost to our planet?

Gina Rinehart, a global warming denier and the wealthiest person in Australia, cannot protect the sports she sponsors from the impact of the climate crisis. But should they be protecting Rinehart’s reputation from the condemnation that is increasingly directed at those who stand in the way of climate action?

That is the question on the lips of many Australian athletes following the announcement on Friday that Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting was becoming a major partner of the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) in a four-year deal. Just days after being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for, among other things, her distinguished service “to sport as a patron”, Rinehart has increased her already considerable involvement with Australian Olympic sport. But at a time of growing athlete activism around climate action, the appropriateness of the AOC lending its social licence to Rinehart and Hancock Prospecting is in doubt.

In 2020, the AOC became a signatory to the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework. “We will certainly be advocating with our stakeholders the importance of conserving vital resources, reducing and recycling waste, promoting environmental stewardship and tackling global warming,” an AOC spokesperson said last month, prior to the deal being announced. Have they told Rinehart, who has called climate science “propaganda”?

Related: Gina Rinehart’s company announced as sponsor of Australian Olympic Team

In recent years, the 67-year-old has poured money into Australian Olympic sports. Her annual contribution across swimming, rowing, volleyball and artistic (synchronised) swimming is estimated to exceed $10m, even before Friday’s announcement (an AOC spokesperson refused to put a dollar figure on the new deal). Hancock Prospecting billboards dominate Australian swim meets, while Rowing Australia’s high performance centre in Penrith is named after the iron ore miner. The sports often describe Rinehart as their “patron” in official communications and have awards and events in her honour.

The billionaire’s choice of sports is noteworthy. Although swimming and rowing are both major contributors to the Australia’s Olympic medal tally, neither – nor volleyball or artistic swimming – is a commercial heavyweight. Despite all four receiving federal government support to varying extents (swimming is the best-funded, at over $9m this year), athletes do not typically enjoy the professional salaries commonplace in other elite sports.

Rinehart, whose wealth is estimated at $31bn, has sought to fill this gap. She provides at least $1.4m annually to rowing, which goes to a weekly wage of $525 for the top 50 Australian rowers. Rinehart has a similar arrangement with swimming, providing salary-style funding for athletes across three tiers, with the highest-tier receiving about $32,000 per year.

“I don’t say this lightly, but Gina Rinehart saved swimming,” veteran Cate Campbell told the Australian Financial Review during last year’s Tokyo Olympics, where she won two gold medals. “Gina Rinehart stepped in [after sponsors had withdrawn funding in 2012]. She made funds available that went directly to athletes. This allowed many athletes – myself included – to see that there was a future career in swimming for us.”

Following the successful Tokyo 2020 campaign, Rinehart gifted earrings, designed by the magnate herself and made by Australian jeweller Paspaley, to female athletes in each of the sports she supports. Male athletes received Apple laptops. “The ongoing generosity of Mrs Rinehart in support of these Olympic and Paralympic teams is incredible,” Liberal senator Hollie Hughes told parliament in November, updating the Senate on Rinehart’s post-Tokyo gifting spree. “So many athletes are able to reach their dreams because of her support.”

Rinehart’s annual funding is equivalent to about one-tenth of the Australian Institute of Sport’s total high performance investment allocation this financial year. Underscoring the significance of her involvement, Rinehart-funded sports accounted for 11 of the nation’s 17 Olympic golds in Tokyo and 26 of Australia’s total haul of 46 medals.

In a video published on Rinehart’s website, Swimming Australia’s stars sung the praises of their benefactor following the Games. “You have been our number one cheerleader every step of the way,” Campbell said. Two-time bronze medallist in Tokyo, Alex Graham, added: “Without your support, of course, none of it would have been possible – and we are extremely grateful.” Other swimmers to feature in the video included Bronte Campbell, Jess Hansen and Ellie Cole.

Clear climate views

So what? What does it matter if Australia’s richest citizen chooses to splash her largesse on otherwise underfunded sports? If Australia’s swimmers, rowers and volleyballers can train full time thanks to Rinehart’s funding, and wear pearl earrings on nice occasions, all the better? And surely a major funding boost for the AOC can only be a good thing?

Alongside her sporting passions, Rinehart has been outspoken in her views on climate change and continues to support climate change denial. In 2018, it emerged in legal proceedings that Hancock Prospecting had donated almost $5m to the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative thinktank that has consistently promoted global warming scepticism. She also admitted to bringing prominent climate change sceptics Lord Christopher Monckton and Prof Ian Plimer to address students at a high school after learning that they had been shown Al Gore’s climate film An Inconvenient Truth.

In a speech in November, Rinehart described Australia’s official attendance at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow as a “waste [of] taxpayers’ money” and mocked the job-creating potential of renewable energy. “I know the miles of solar panels will need wiping to be effective, and the millions of dead bats and birds – lives claimed by wind power infrastructure – will need collecting and burying,” she said. (While wind turbines do impact wildlife, fossil fuel production – and domestic cats – kill far more birds.)

Rinehart is also an influential backer of the National party. She hosted deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce’s first fundraiser following his return to the leadership, and has previously flown Joyce to a wedding in India on a private jet. In 2017, Rinehart gave Joyce a personal cheque for $40,000 at a gala dinner, although he returned the money following criticism. The Nationals, as is well known, are the major blockers of climate action in the governing Liberal-National coalition. Joyce is believed to have opposed the Morrison government’s net zero by 2050 target.

Australia&#x002019;s Olympic team are farewelled by Gina Rinehart as they leave for the Tokyo Olympics
Australia’s Olympic team are farewelled by Gina Rinehart as they leave for the Tokyo Olympics. Photograph: Brian Cassey/AAP

All of which sits uneasily with the growing climate activism of Australian athletes and sports. The Campbell sisters are among the hundreds of athletes to have joined the Cool Down initiative, championed by David and Emma Pocock, which seeks to use sporting profile to promote climate action. “If climate action was the Olympics, Australia isn’t winning gold, we’re not making the finals, in fact, we don’t even qualify,” its website says.

In 2021, the Climate Council, a leading Australian climate NGO, published a report on sport and climate change, titled Game, Set, Match: Calling Time on Climate Inaction. Among the high-profile athletes to speak out following the report’s release were Bronte Campbell, Australian cricket captain Pat Cummins, surfer Adrian Buchan and AFLW star Sharni Layton.

“Australia’s summer of sport is under threat from climate change,” Dr Martin Rice, the Climate Council’s head of research, told Guardian Australia. “Climate change, driven by the burning of coal, oil and gas, is worsening extreme weather events and disrupting Australian sport. By 2040, heatwaves in Sydney and Melbourne could reach highs of 50C, threatening the viability of summer sport as it is currently played.

“Sport is a powerful force for climate solutions,” Rice continued. “When it comes to sponsorship, professional and community sports should switch from fossil fuel-backed companies to ones that invest in climate solutions.”

Ongoing relationships

Rinehart is not alone in both sponsoring sport and resisting climate action. Oil and gas company Santos is a major sponsor of the Tour Down Under cycling and the Wallabies, while Adani – which is currently developing the Carmichael coalmine, expected to cause 200m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions – has its logo on the sleeve of the North Queensland Cowboys. Woodside, which in December signalled its intent to proceed with a gas development that will release 1.37bn tonnes of CO2, has been the Fremantle Dockers’ major sponsor for over a decade. Former Wallabies captain Pocock recently described fossil fuel sponsorship as “the new cigarette sponsorship.”

But Rinehart’s involvement is closer, more personal and now, following the AOC deal, even more high-profile. She and her company are not just engaging in a transactional commercial sponsorship, but buying an intimate relationship with these sports and athletes. Her personal gifts to Olympians is indicative of that atypical involvement. By directly paying athlete wages, often bypassing the national sporting organisation entirely, Rinehart has also secured an ongoing relationship less easily replaced by traditional sponsorships.

Cate Campbell, in her video message to Rinehart, noted that the billionaire had personally travelled to Cairns to farewell the team before they departed for Tokyo. “Seeing you waving us off as we took off to go and take on the world in Tokyo gave us that little bit of extra motivation that we needed to take on the best in the world,” said the four-time Olympian. Rinehart has also reportedly become close with silver medal-winning beach volleyballer Taliqua Clancy, who told The Australian newspaper “Mrs Rinehart has been amazing ... and with her support our journey to this point has been possible. We have missed her in Tokyo.”

Guardian Australia sought comment from Swimming Australia, Rowing Australia, Artistic Swimming Australia, Volleyball Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee. The sports were asked whether their acceptance of Rinehart’s support might inhibit athletes from pursuing climate activism, whether the organisations had a position on climate action and net zero, and why they had not signed up to the Cool Down (organisational signatories include the AFL Players Association and Professional Footballers Association, but no major sporting peak bodies).

Gina Rinehart at the 2019 Australian Short Course Swimming Championships in Melbourne
Gina Rinehart at the 2019 Australian Short Course Swimming Championships in Melbourne. Photograph: Sean Garnsworthy/AAP

A spokesperson for Swimming Australia said that it does not currently receive any direct financial support from Hancock Prospecting or Rinehart. Hancock Prospecting was previously a significant sponsor of Swimming Australia, including as a headline sponsor for major events (the company’s signage was prominently poolside at the Olympic trials earlier this year). Guardian Australia understands that the underlying commercial agreement was not renewed. “Our athletes often voice their opinions on issues they feel passionately about, including climate action,” the spokesperson said.

The AOC confirmed that, prior to Friday’s deal, neither it nor its foundation had received any financial support from Rinehart or Hancock Prospecting. However, in 2014, Rinehart was awarded the AOC’s Order of Merit. An AOC spokesperson said: “We have no concerns [about athletes being silenced]. Athletes with strongly held convictions on important issues are entitled to express their views with the same freedom as any individual.”

None of the other sporting organisations replied to requests for comment. Guardian Australia also unsuccessfully sought comment from Cate and Bronte Campbell via their agent.

In a statement published by the AOC following Friday’s announcement, Rinehart said “our company has been a long-term supporter of the summer Olympic sports of artistic swimming, rowing and volleyball for many years, and specifically over 30 years for swimming. We are so proud to help our great Olympians who are such inspirations, through their hard work, most do not really know how hard they work, dedication, focus and self-discipline, as they endeavour to represent our country to the best of their ability. The traits these role models show in my view, are important for us all, if we wish to succeed in life and business.”

Steadfast support

With the new AOC deal and the 2032 Olympics confirmed for Brisbane, Rinehart’s involvement in Australian sport is only likely to grow. The billionaire has been a conspicuous presence at a number of events in Queensland celebrating the successful bid. Rinehart made headlines at an Olympic lunch in late November, where she appeared alongside the likes of Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for her presentation complaining about the lack of facilities to moor her superyacht along the Queensland coast.

“I am booked into Paris [2024 Olympics] for all four sports that I am involved in,” she told The Australian newspaper following an Olympic-themed Property Council event last year. “I have been asked to continue to Los Angeles [2028]. You never know I am an elderly vintage but I rather hope I am around for 2032 as well.” She confirmed that intent on Friday, expressing her desire to “continue this all the way until and including Brisbane 2032”.

Athletes and officials of Australia&#x002019;s Olympic team for the Tokyo Olympics are farewelled by Gina Rinehart at Cairns airport
Athletes and officials from Australia’s team for the Tokyo Olympics are farewelled by Gina Rinehart at Cairns airport. Photograph: Brian Cassey/AAP

Rinehart may be steadfast in her support for Australian Olympic sport. But unless her position on climate action evolves, the sports and athletes that accept her funding will face an increasingly acute dilemma. What is the cost, to athletes and sports, of accepting money from an influential denier of global warming? And what is the cost to our planet?

Last winter, the iconic Manly beach had been left battered following a major storm – the kind that now hits with greater frequency and eroding force. On the disturbed sand stood askew sponsorship banners for Hancock Prospecting, the mining company owned by Rinehart, surrounding a beach volleyball court. The juxtaposition was stark. Friday’s deal only underscores the dissonance. When increasing heat impacts Summer Olympics and a lack of snow sours Winter Games, the AOC will not be blameless.