Professional athletes control many factors that affect their game day performance, such as training, nutrition, and mental stability. But an increasingly influential factor is largely out of immediate control of the athlete: climate change. Many common climate impacts felt by the average person, like extreme heat, air pollution, and flooding, are also affecting athletes — and the venues and organizations that help them compete. Now these organizations are working for ambitious climate policy, and many are taking responsibility for their impact on emissions. Because of the unique, unifying position the sports industry is in, they can use their worldwide influence to push sustainability efforts.
Extreme heat has impacted almost all outdoor sports, year round. Winter sports are being forced to shorten their seasons or relocate because their locations see fewer days with temperatures below freezing and retreating snow lines. At the 2018 winter Olympics in PyeongChang, 98 percent of the snow in the Jeongseon Alpine Center was manmade. On the other hand, heat-related illness can affect athletes, spectators, and organizers, forcing events to adapt. In 2018 the U.S. Open tennis tournament was forced to offer a “heat break” to athletes as temperatures neared 100 degrees F. Warming temperatures due to climate change will continue and can cause more widespread inconveniences to sports around the world.
As climate change continues to increase the number of bad air days across the United States, this poor air quality threatens athletes’ career longevity and performance. Studies have shown that athletes are affected by air pollution at a disproportionately higher rate because of their higher rate of breathing and increased airflow velocity during exercise. Long-term training in these conditions can have negative impacts on an athletes’ overall career performance and may force them to retire early due to related health issues. Breathing the unsafe air for even a short amount of time can heighten previous illnesses or increase the likelihood of future illnesses. As a result, game days are more often deemed unsafe for competition. Some tennis players were forced to withdraw from the 2020 Australian Open because of poor air quality caused by wildfires.
Factors like heavier precipitation, higher sea levels, and more-frequent hurricanes have led to increased flooding in both coastal and inland communities. It’s estimated that over the next 25 years, 1 in 3 golf courses in the United Kingdom are at risk of damage because of sea level rise, while unprecedented flooding has forced cancelations of other events.
While the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed due to the global pandemic, the world’s largest sporting event is more consistently threatened by climate risks. A recent study of 21 former winter Olympic cities found that only 12 will likely have temperatures low enough to host the games in 2050. The city of PyeongChang (the site of the 2018 Winter Olympics) was expected to generate more than five times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than the city of Vancouver, host of the 2010 winter Olympics, in part because of the transportation emissions caused from moving athletes and spectators to the cooler areas of the Korean Peninsula.
The Olympics have recently been the center of the conversation about the relationship between sports and climate change for both its role as an emitter and as a victim of climate change. Before being rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics had announced plans to reduce its emissions as a result of growing pressure from spectators and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for host cities to incorporate sustainability plans. They included requiring 60 percent of all facility use to be from pre-existing buildings, powering the games and operations with renewable energy, and enacting a carbon offset program. The IOC has announced that climate change is now an underlying factor for host city selection, which will encourage potential host cities to adopt ambitious sustainability initiatives and innovative ways to reduce the emissions caused by the Olympics. These are important steps but there is still a long way to go to ensure both the summer and winter Olympics will be safe and sustainable in the future.
In March, the IOC announced the games will be climate positive from 2030, with the goal of setting an example for the global sports community to combat climate change. The IOC is able to use its large global influence within the sports industry, federal and local governments, corporations, and spectators to bring attention to climate change, and set a precedent for effective solutions to prevent harmful long-term effects.
Having played a crucial role in past movements, like uniting Americans during World War II and after 9/11, we’ve seen the power of sports as a unifying influence. Similarly, the revival of some professional sports in the United States is helping Americans cope with pandemic life. Likewise, sports can unify us when it comes to the global action required to combat climate change. If so many people who share the joy of sports and care about the health of athletes can work together, we can elicit action around the world.