The realities of climate change are colliding with the world of sports. The Australian Open—the first leg of tennis’s Grand Slam—has seen players this week complain of chest pains, vomiting, and dizziness as a result of the smoke and ash coming from the wildfires that have ravaged the country. British competitor Liam Broady wrote on social media:
The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood. On tour we let so many things go that aren’t right but, at some point, we have to make a stand. All players need protection, not just a select few.
Others to suffer and speak out have included the Slovenian Dalila Jakupovic, who collapsed and quit after an uncontrollable coughing fit, and Dustin Brown, who received medical treatment and said the courtside doctor told him he had “a virus coming on.” Brown, who once inquired about playing Davis Cup for Great Britain, commented on Twitter: “In 35 years it’s the first time I had to use an asthma spray to help me breathe better.”
This is not the first time that the heating of the planet has been an issue at the Australian Open. In 2014, temperatures rose to 108 degrees, causing players to pass out, vomit, and burn their skin on chairs. The sneakers of one player actually melted. This led to new restrictions related to heat starting in 2015. Officials, however, did not foresee the impact of the country being on fire by 2020. Perhaps they should have.
Rumbles by players have included demands for some kind of collective action as well as demands for the top players in the sport, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, to speak out and actually say something about the conditions.
This crisis at the Australian Open is a living, present-day example of the ways that climate destruction is invading and warping the normally hermetically sealed entertainment chamber that is the world of sports. Cold weather competitions have already seen a creeping crisis in the availability of snow and ice, hurting the ability to stage regular competitions. Hockey in Canada, according to a report by the organization Climate Nexus,
Is at risk of becoming an endangered sport. Recent reports are warning of the end of outdoor rinks in Canada, where average temperatures rose 4.5°F between 1951 and 2005. In that time period, many areas of Canada saw a 20 percent decrease in the outdoor hockey season. One particularly emblematic rink has seen a five day decrease in playable days per decade between 1972 and 2013, with 58 playable days in that period, falling to 28 days by 2090.
It’s not just, as we see in Australia right now, that sports demand the cold. Marathons, cycling, or any outdoor sport that requires a superhuman cardiovascular ability are on the clock. In addition, golf could become something that has to be done inside a dome, as the destruction to local ecosystems caused by golf courses coupled with rising waters make caring for an 18-hole course exceedingly difficult. Golf Digest reported that “out of 1,168 courses less than two meters above sea level, more than half are vulnerable to disappearance by the end of this century.” President “Global warming is a Chinese hoax” Trump has famously decided to design a sea wall to protect his own golf course in Doonbeg, Ireland. This led to the 2018 Vox headline, “Trump dismisses the economic impact of climate change—except at his golf course.”
As for the players at the Australian Open, climate catastrophe has become a workplace safety issue. One player, Canadian Vasek Pospisil, said, “It’s time for a players’ union. This is getting absurd.” Imagine if the players went on strike to cancel the Australian Open in the name of their own health as well as in solidarity with those affected by the fires. Such actions, once unthinkable, might soon become a necessity.
The sports world has for too long had its head in the sand when it comes to our ongoing climate catastrophe. That neutrality will no longer suffice. It can either strive to be a part of the solution or it can be an instrument of distraction. If they choose the latter, the minders of our games will be obscuring the severity of the problem even as their own sports sink into the sea or simply burn.