Updated: Jul 13

Male Tennis Player Wiping Sweat Under Sun

Did you know that heat stress linked to climate change is likely to cause 38,000 extra deaths a year worldwide between 2030 and 2050? This finding by the World Health Organisation was widely reported, highlighting that heat stress worsens existing health problems and provokes heat stroke and exhaustion. As we have seen from the Tokyo Olympics, heat stress is a major concern for athletes. Wet weather, wildfires and poor air quality have also led to severe repercussions for the sporting fraternity, such as fainting players and cancelled races. In addition, the U.S. National Park Service estimates 80 rockfalls events happen every year at Yosemite due to warming temperatures, and an unstable climate could cause even more rockfalls locally and worldwide.

Read More o Sustainability by Climate Conversations & Boulder Planet

In this article, we examine the effects of climate change on sports in a global context, how this can spur climate action in the international sporting scene and ponder the future of climbing on a hotter planet.

The Physical Impacts of Extreme Heat

Sweaty Male Drinking Water

According to an article by the Climate Reality Project, extreme heat is a major health hazard as it disrupts the body’s thermoregulation. And can also cause muscle cramps, profuse perspiration, thirst and fatigue. In addition, when athletes continue to perform under extreme heat conditions, they could feel chills, affecting their nervous system, resulting in impaired coordination and decision-making.

In January 2018, cricket fans witnessed England's Captain Joe Root being taken to hospital to be treated for severe dehydration during the fifth Ashes Test between England and Australia in Sydney. On that day, the temperature reached 57°C (134°F). Since then, extreme heat has led to the cancellation of cricket games in Australia, and cricket has adopted an "extreme heat policy" that gives umpires the ability to halt games due to extreme heat.

More recently, world tennis Number One Novak Djokovic called for tennis matches to be pushed later into the day at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 due to the sweltering conditions. He said, "I don't understand why they don't start matches at, say, 3 pm," and added, "You feel you have weights on your shoulders because there's so much heat and humidity and stagnated air."

The conditions in Tokyo were arguably the worst in Olympic history, with many athletes agreeing that this was the toughest they have ever experienced. For example, Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva fainted due to the intense heat during her qualifying competition. The extreme heat unsurprisingly became one of the biggest talking points at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.

The Effects of Wet Weather and Rising Sea Levels

Two Runners Rain

Wet weather and heavy downpours can cause pitches, arenas and fields that host sporting events to be flooded and unplayable. According to a 2018 study by the Climate Coalition, a British campaign group, golf, cricket, and soccer are also suffering from wetter weather linked to climate change. Around the world, sporting events are affected by floods caused by extreme wet weather and games delayed due to lightning strikes.

American Football venues are predicted to be heavily impacted by rising sea levels. Florida is already seeing the effects of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, leaving stadiums such as the Miami Dolphin's Hard Rock Stadium, where they have already had to cancel games due to climate impacts, particularly vulnerable.

In basketball, the Miami Heat team plays at the American Airlines Arena, located on the edge of Biscayne Bay. According to climate change academics: "The Arena will begin to flood with only two feet of sea-level rise. I'm talking 20 years or less."

However, this disruption has created an opportunity for the sports industry to send powerful messages about the importance of going green. In 2018, the New York Yankees appointed Allen Hershkowitz as their Environmental Science Advisor (the only known such position in sport so far). Hershkowitz was co-founder of the Commissioner's Initiative on Sustainable Ballpark Operations way back in 2005, which encouraged all Major League Baseball teams to adopt more sustainable practices. Every other professional sports league in the U.S. and others around the world then followed suit. Hershkowitz recognised years ago that "environmental constraints, economic constraints caused by environmental issues are going to increasingly affect the economics and the operations of sporting events".

The fight that global stadiums and sporting venues face from the effects of climate change will go on indefinitely.

The Effects of Wildfires and Poor Air Quality