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How the climate crisis is affecting elite sport

November 8, 2023

The air is thick at the Cricket World Cup in India. Extreme smog is causing problems for athletes and fans. Environmental issues are affecting elite sport more and more.

A cricket pitch lit up at night. The stands in the background are barely visible through the smog
The Cricket World Cup carries on despite the thick smog in New Delhi Image: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

The view from the Arun Jaitley Stadium in the heart of Delhi is milky. On the field, Bangladesh are on their way to beating Sri Lanka at the Cricket World Cup, but these players are not to be envied. The air quality is so bad that training sessions before the match had been canceled. The air quality index in Delhi has been moving between unhealthy and hazardous in recent days, so much so that outdoor activities are not currently recommended because of possible health issues.

A blow for India's Olympic hopes

Smog is the result of pollution from power plants, vehicles and other sources reacting in sunlight and heat and is both aggravates by and contributes to the rising temperatures that accompany climate change.

The cricket stars currently in India are having to contend with this, breathing in particularly harmful particulate matter - the term for a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air. 

Some of these particles are so small they can get deep into your lungs, some even into your bloodstream. Particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as fine particles or PM2.5, pose the greatest risk to health and in Delhi the current PM2.5 reading is 184 micrograms per cubic meter, 12 times the limit set by the World Health Organization.

With air purifiers in the dressing rooms and water misting alongside the pitch, the organizers are trying to alleviate the problems at the World Cup matches.

"In an ideal world, you don't want a situation like this," India captain Rohit Sharma said. "But I'm pretty sure the concerned people are taking the necessary steps to avoid these kind of situations. It's not ideal, everyone knows that."

The problems at the Cricket World Cup are also not good news for India's image as an up-and-coming sporting nation that wants to host the 2036 Olympic Games. The images of a smog-ridden Delhi certainly don't help that cause.

Heat, smog, artificial snow

It's becoming increasingly common to see elite sport affected by environmental and climate changes, the author David Goldblatt told DW.

"The Australian Open, which was played in a heat wave, you had like a thousand people being treated for heat issues," Goldblatt said. "As you know, Tokyo 2020, we had outdoor swimmers swimming in really health-threatening 30-degree (86 F) water. One of these events is going to be cataclysmic."

Goldblatt is the co-founder of Football for Future, an organization that challenges football's stakeholders to respond to the changing world. He believes that sport will have to change, replacing relentless growth with reduction.

"The bigger question is really over the next kind of 20 years; global sport as a whole and domestic sports have got to think very, very hard about: Can we keep growing? Maybe we need to actually do less," Goldblatt said.

The battle between more and less is currently most apparent in skiing, the sport that has perhaps been the most affected by the climate crisis. While the the sport's international governing body seeks to expand the current World Cup calendar, criticism is growing louder.

"We cannot deny climate change and must adapt," said Christian Scherer, the general secretary of Austria's skiing association.

Factors such as snow safety and sustainability efforts such as using existing facilities will play a central role in the future when awarding major events to locations. The same applies to heat conditions and air quality as is now the case in India.

2030 World Cup: 'Symbolically insane'

Sport is not just a victim of the climate crisis. From amateur athletes getting in the car several times a week for training and competitions to major events such as the Olympics, sport is also an offender when it comes to the environment.

"It's symbolically insane," Goldblatt said of the 2030 World Cup. As a football fan, he sympathizes with opening the tournament in Uruguay, but said a tournament with 105 matches on three continents, with tens of thousands of fans traveling back and forth, was a farce from an environmental point of view. Although sports associations such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA are making efforts to label their events as "climate-friendly" or even "climate-neutral" by paying for CO2 compensation programs, Goldblatt said, this is "not a plausible plan."

Ironically, both FIFA and the IOC have committed to more climate protection as part of the World Climate Conference. The declared goal of the sports action plan: Greenhouse gas emissions are to be halved by 2030 and reduced to zero by 2040. Further talks are scheduled for the upcoming COP 28 world climate summit in Dubai at the end of November.

More voices needed

Cricket's governing body has not yet signed up to the UN's action plan but has set its own sustainability goals. The smog-ridden World Cup shows how necessary it is for sport to be a role model in environmental protection. Prominent voices from sport itself are therefore needed, Goldblatt said.

"We need a Marcus Rashford," he said. "We need all of those folks, men and women in football and in cricket. Where is the Indian cricketer who's going to stand up? And they would have a major voice in Indian politics."

There are athletes who have stood up. Australia's cricket captain, Pat Cummins, has been vocal about the climate impact on cricket and worked with Australian cricket to ensure that the association is doing its part for the climate. Otherwise, Cummins said, it'll soon be "game over for the sport we love."

This article was originally written in German

Jens Krepela
Jens Krepela Editor, reporter and author