By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) – A panel of sporting stars at Wimbledon have condemned the protests that held up two matches on Wednesday, saying they had sympathy with the environmental message but that campaigners should work with sporting events rather than disrupt them.

Three Just Stop Oil protesters ran on to two courts, sprinkling shiny confetti, in the latest incidence of invading the playing area at major televised sporting events.

Wimbledon has dubbed Thursday “Environment Day” and began it with a panel discussion hosted by former footballer-turned TV presenter Gary Lineker.

The hot topic was the protests and Briton Heather Watson, the only tennis player on the panel, said she had not spoken to any of the players involved but that it was uncomfortable to watch.

“I was thinking if I was playing on that court, I wonder how I would have felt?,” she said. “You don’t know what somebody’s running on the court for, you fear for your safety. But I think it’s like ‘come let’s work as a team, collaborate’. It’s never going to be perfect, but at least we can try to work together.”

Tennis players have good reason to feel vulnerable, operating so close to the crowd and well aware of the incident in 1993 when a fan entered the court and stabbed Monica Seles in the back during a tournament in Germany.

Suzann Pettersen, the Norwegian captain of Europe’s team for golf’s Solheim Cup, said: “I don’t really agree with the actions they take but you can see why they do it – sport is a great platform to get their points across.”


Sebastian Coe, the head of World Athletics, said there had been physical danger when protesters unfurled a banner across the track as athletes finished a 400 metres hurdles race in last week’s Diamond League meeting in Stockholm.

“I don’t for one minute dismiss the sentiments behind that movement and other movements, I’m a libertarian, I will die in a ditch for people to express their views, but what I really would ask is that it is done in a respectful way, and there was a risk attached to what happened in Stockholm.

“Don’t think of us as competitors, think of us as potential collaborators and allow the amplification that our athletes and that sport can give to this,” he said.

Hannah Mills, a double Olympic sailing gold medallist, has become an outspoken campaigner on environmental issues.

“It is urgent and not enough is being done but at the same time, as a player, that would be terrifying, because you don’t know why they are running on court and what they’re going to do and that’s not very pleasant,” she said.

Wimbledon has introduced sustainability measures this year, including the introduction of reusable water bottles. However, the tournament’s eco credentials have been challenged by campaigners unhappy that it has a new sponsorship deal with Barclays Bank, which they say invests heavily in fossil fuel companies.

A group of celebrities wrote an open letter to the tournament that said: “Barclays is financing and profiting from climate chaos, and accepting a sponsorship deal from them is an endorsement of these actions.”

Wimbledon responded by saying Barclays was committed to “creating access to sport for all” and that having a positive impact on the environment is central to the tournament.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)

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