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Playing sports in the time of pollution

The ongoing Australian Open has sparked off debate on holding sporting tournaments in unhealthy air conditions

Dalila Jakupović had a coughing fit during her qualifying match for the Australian Open
Dalila Jakupović had a coughing fit during her qualifying match for the Australian Open

It’s almost a week since the Australian Open—the season’s first Grand Slam—started amid a haze of gloomy air in Melbourne. But the chatter on the impact of climate change on sport, whether ongoing or muted now, has just begun.

Ahead of the championships, which started on 20 January, the dominant conversation was about the air quality in the city, given the after-effects of the bushfires that have so far reportedly killed 30 people and around a billion animals and burnt about 10 million hectares of land. One of the concerns was not just holding a sporting competition in such environmental conditions, but conducting the tournament at all in the wake of a tragedy that’s bigger than sport.

“I guess my mind is still not completely on the tennis side of things," local player Nick Kyrgios told reporters two days before the start of the Grand Slam. “The fires…people are losing their families, homes. It’s not easy to just completely switch your concentration on the Australian Open—how is your forehand going today?—when you put it in perspective of what is actually going on."

While players are contributing their bit to the cause—for example, Kyrgios is donating AUD $200 (around 10,000) for every ace he serves this summer, top players participated in a fund-raiser match to raise more than AUD $3.5 million and Swiss Belinda Bencic is paying up for each double fault she makes—this doesn’t alleviate their own problems.

The Australian Open is already played under testing summer conditions, a point that is highlighted every year. Every edition features images of players wrapped in towels with ice in them, looking parched and worn out. As temperatures hit 42 degrees Celsius in 2014, for example, Croatia’s Ivan Dodig feared he “could maybe even die" before retiring from his match.

“They need to have some sort of measure, not only with the heat but about the air, because it is a health issue, and especially when it gets on to three out of five sets and you are out there for a long time. You want to be able to breathe some clean air," said ESPN tennis analyst Chris Evert over a conference call with the media last week.

With queries on whether the event that offers AUD $71 million as prize money could be cancelled, organizers moved quickly. The tournament director said solutions included playing matches indoors—in three-roofed stadia at Melbourne Park with filtered air-conditioning and eight indoor courts at the nearby National Tennis Centre—besides monitoring levels of microscopic particulate pollution (PM 2.5) every 4 minutes during the tournament.

On 19 January, The New York Times reported that the threshold used by the Australian Open was within what the US Environmental Protection Agency defines as a very unhealthy range, when people are advised to limit outdoor activity. “They are so small they can get right down into the lungs and into the bloodstream and can cause longer-term effects," Kate Charlesworth, a public health physician based in Sydney was quoted as saying.

A series of incidents and situations fanned the flames of this debate. In the second week of January, Slovenian player Dalila Jakupović was leading in her qualifying match against Switzerland’s Stefanie Vögele when she pulled out after a coughing fit. Australia’s own Bernard Tomic sought medical treatment after complaining he could not breathe.

Britain’s Liam Broady took to social media to highlight his complaints, about compromised health, playing conditions and even a threat to sections of the public. “The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood…when multiple players need asthma spray on court and they don’t even have asthma? When a player collapses and has to retire due to respiratory issues?" he wrote.

Spectators at a match in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open.
Spectators at a match in Melbourne ahead of the Australian Open. (Photo: Getty Images)

Given the pollution, governing body Tennis Australia moved a tournament from Canberra because the facility was not fit for players or spectators. A cricket match between Sydney Thunder and Adelaide Strikers before Christmas was stopped and then abandoned due to smoke levels. The first Formula One race of the year, on 15 March in Melbourne, is under scrutiny as well.

The blaze in Australia—a regular feature, though not on this scale—may have triggered the discussion, but India is not new to issues of pollution affecting play. Last year, a few Bangladesh cricketers wore masks while training for their Twenty20 match against India at the Feroz Shah Kotla (now Arun Jaitley Stadium) in Delhi. In December 2017, a few Sri Lankan players were forced to leave the same field due to breathlessness and vomiting, while several wore masks. After losing their Indian Super League football match to Northeast United in October 2018, newspapers quoted the Delhi Dynamos’ coach as saying his foreign players were not used to such pollution.

Medical experts believe that breathing in toxic pollutants can impair performance, affecting players’ ability to concentrate. As the heart rate increases and it pumps in more oxygen for the muscles to perform, clean air helps the process. During the Test against Sri Lanka, the Indian Medical Association criticized the exposure of players to harmful pollutants over five days at a stretch, saying it takes a serious toll on health in the long run.

Rashpal Singh, who won a silver medal in the South Asian Games last year and ran the Tata Mumbai Marathon on 19 January, says he has felt his lungs constrict in the past during runs in Delhi winters. Though Mumbai had an air quality rating of 3, temperature of 23 degrees Celsius and humidity of 60%—all reasonable conditions for the city—on the day of the marathon, seasoned athletes like Sudha Singh, who was the fastest Indian woman for a third year in a row, had felt the sting of the humidity during training a morning earlier.

But athletes adapt, or are meant to, particularly the seasoned ones who are used to travelling all over the world. Former Manchester United centre-back Ronny Johnsen, who arrived in Mumbai last week from chilly Norway and stood near a fan whenever possible during an event, said players need to adjust to every condition. He was talking in the context of a Manchester United Under-18 team playing in India in May. However, it’s not possible to adapt to air pollution.

While the Australian Open goes ahead despite the concerns, it has become obvious that sports stakeholders need to open a conversation on the subject of weather, playing conditions and pollution.

“I don’t think anyone has an easy answer, whether it’s the players or the tournament organizers or the government of Australia," said ESPN commentator John McEnroe on the call with Evert. “So this is something that hasn’t been experienced…. Everyone is excited and everyone is concerned. So I think everyone is trying to figure out what to do here."

In the meantime, players like Nicolas Mahut, who played the longest tennis match ever—at Wimbledon 2010—have a temporary solution. He posted a picture on Instagram in tennis gear with a racket, wearing a mask, and the caption read: “Ready for my first round."

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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