Are outdoor sports facing elimination?

Queen’s professor talks the effects of climate change on sports—and what needs to happen next

Dr. Mary Louise Adams said sport organizations need to mobilize their influence into initiating discussions on climate change.
Dr. Mary Louise Adams said sport organizations need to mobilize their influence into initiating discussions on climate change.
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Climate change poses a major threat to all aspects of human life, and sports are no exception. 
 
Increasing temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events are threatening ability to play sports across the globe. While winters are getting shorter, summers are hotter, which places undue strain on athletes.
 
Before being postponed due to COVID-19, organizers for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were fretting over the logistics of hosting the marathon in scorching summer heat that’s known to exceed 40 degrees Celsius. Organizers were exploring pushing the marathon as early as 3 a.m. to avoid the heat and repave the roads with heat shielding material. Instead, the decision was made to simply move the competition 800 kilometers north to the city of Sapporo. 
 
However, where moving competitions isn’t a viable option, some countries are considering rescheduling their summer sports seasons to cooler months.
 
Climate scientists are now saying Melbourne is becoming dangerously hot for tennis players and that the Australian Open should be moved to the spring or fall instead. 
 
The 2020 Australian Open served as a grim beacon of what the future could hold for summer competitions, as temperatures reached a sweltering 43 degrees Celsius. This was coupled with smoke from Australia’s bushfires, causing athletes to choke on the air and resulted in matches being postponed. 
 
Similarly, the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar has been moved to November rather than the traditional summer schedule, due to unbearable heat on the Arab Peninsula over the summer months. 
 
While rescheduling seasons may be a long-term solution for summer sports, it’s not a luxury available to winter events that require snow and sub-zero temperatures. 
 
Climate researchers at the University of Waterloo now say that of the 21 venues that have hosted the winter Olympics in the past, only 10 will have suitable climates for the event by 2050, and as little as four by 2080. 
 
Despite these threats, little is being done across sports leagues to adopt green initiatives and curb climate change. 
 
Dr. Mary Louise Adams, a professor at Queen’s School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, said sports’ general unwillingness to take climate action seriously is unfortunate, particularly given its ability to promote important social change.
 
“[Climate change] is going to affect every single aspect of our society, and so pointing at things like sports is a way of kind of bringing it home to people who are maybe feeling a little bit too comfortable or thinking it’s not going to happen,” Adams told The Journal.
 
While sports’ impact on climate change may seem innocuous, the industry amasses a sizeable carbon footprint. New research estimates the global sporting industry contributes as much to climate change as a country like Bolivia. Critics of the study were quick to point out that this is likely too low an estimate, as the impact of sportswear wasn’t considered. 
 
Adams, who’s currently doing research about the relationship of parks and recreation to environmental issues like biodiversity loss and climate change, thinks a big step forward for the sporting industry would be to curb new stadium construction and make existing facilities more eco-friendly.
 
“One of the [ways sports can be more eco-friendly] is trying to curb the development, like not always needing a bigger, newer kind of stadium, you know; reduce, reuse, recycle, that kind of thing. A lot of habitat destruction comes from building,” Adams said. 
 
“[T]he environmental impact of sports is massive, and we don’t pay enough attention to that. And, it would be easier, of course, for the public to pay attention to it, if athletes themselves were bringing it to people’s attention.”
 
Ideally, Adams thinks the task should fall to sport organizations, but doesn’t see this happening.
 
“It really should be the organizations that should bring attention [to climate change]. The IOC (International Olympic Committee) is a massive, powerful organization, it certainly has resources at its disposal to communicate important global messages. But it doesn’t tend to do that ever,” she said.
 
To see a real attitude shift in the sports, Adams believes the change will need to start with grassroots movements among athletes before becoming a central issue that’s taken seriously by sports organizations. 
 
“[Change] starts outside of sport but sport can be a very powerful vehicle to spread messages and to communicate the need for change,” she said.
 
“I think what you see, and certainly what you’re seeing now in the Black Lives Matter movement, is that there are big social movements going on in society, and periodically we see sport connecting with them in really beneficial ways.”
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