Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire: The Future of Summer Sport in Australia

The haunting images of 28-year-old Dalila Jakupovic collapsing to her knees in a coughing fit in her Australian Open qualifier captured the world’s attention. It was as uncommon as it was frightening.

Induced by hazardous bushfire smoke shrouding the sporting capital, the fit grabbed headlines as a blatant symptom of climate change – a result caused by a recipe of human errors.

Climate change affected a pillar of Australian culture, and ordinary Australians took offence.

But global warming has actively affected outdoor summer sports in Australia for more than a decade.

Not particularly fussy, the outstretched claws of this climate crisis have made their presence felt in tennis, cricket, cycling and football, among other sports.

Commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub published three reports over the summer. The reports centred on climate change, extreme heat and three staples of the Australian summer sports circuit; test cricket, the Tour Down Under and the Australian Open.

Increasingly extreme temperatures have been affecting these events. In 2014, 1000 spectators at the Australian Open were treated for heat stress.

In 2018 – on a 40°C day where court temperatures reached 69°C – Gael Monfils felt like he was “dying on the court” in a four-set loss to Novak Djokovic.

The following day, Alize Cornet collapsed on court in a two-set loss. The heat policy was subsequently modified for the following tournament.

In the 2017, 2018 and 2019 editions of the Tour Down Under, stages of the race have been shortened due to high temperatures.

The most recent edition saw riders race through the region affected by December’s Cudlee Creek bushfire –  an inferno that killed one person and destroyed more than 100 homes.

Co-author of the reports, Stephanie Hall says a large proportion of summer sports are going to be exposed to further climate extremes, posing considerable implications for their future.

“In the last 20-30 years, we have documented that both average maximum temperatures and the number of days above extreme heat thresholds have been increasing,” she says.

“Think about the power sport has and the place that it holds in Australian culture, and how important events like the Australian Open and the Boxing Day test really galvanise people and bring people together.

“If we want to keep enjoying those experiences then we absolutely need to look at how we manage risks moving forward and look at both adaptation measures and also for the governing body to look at mitigation options.”

Paul Sinclair, the ACF’s director of campaigns and president of Youlden Parkville Cricket Club shares a similar sentiment, albeit a deeply personal one.

“As the president of a large community cricket club with 21 teams of men and women, boys and girls, I’m increasingly dealing with extreme heat issues, particularly on our young players. I’m also concerned about the impact of drought on the ability to get access to the ovals we play our sport on,” says Sinclair.

“Two weeks ago, for the first time in our history, and we’ve been around since 1875, we had to cancel training because the air quality was too hazardous.”

“I know from my lived experience that sport is about more than the runs, the wickets, and the goals. Sport is about what’s created between people by playing the game.

“Sport at its best brings people together to do great things. Now, being a time in our planet’s history, in our country’s history, that we need to come together to do great things, sport has a really important role to play in that.”

Although our most prized sporting occasions are at risk, most at stake are local sporting events.

Without the millions of dollars that Tennis Australia, Cricket Australia and other major organisations possess, community sports are often left to fend for themselves at the mercy of the surrounding climate, with regional centres most vulnerable.

The knock-on effect of losing a part of Australian society often taken for granted would be alarming.

A precious part of Australian culture, people involved in community sports are “more exposed to different cultures, have improved mental health and have improved physical health”, according to Sinclair, citing multiple reports.

“Elite athletes that take part in those major events, they’re at risk, but they’ll be looked after by the amount of money that gets poured into sports at the elite level.

“All the people reading this piece, all the young people who are playing those sports at a community level, they don’t have access to ice baths and fans, you can’t close the roof on your local oval or tennis club.”

“I had a chat to a guy from Mallacoota Cricket Club yesterday, and his words were, ‘my throat’s fucked, everyone in town has a smoker’s cough’. Now the long-term impacts of that are unknown.”

 

Leading by example, Youlden Parkville Cricket Club became the first community cricket club in the world to sign the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework – a template designed by the UN and International Olympic Committee to commit sporting organisations to recognising the role they have to play in the climate crisis.

The framework pledges organisations to systematic change, taking action to measure and reduce their climate impact, while also committing the organisation to educating, advocating and promoting climate action.

Source: Australian Conservation Foundation & Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, adapted from UN Sports for Climate Action.

Tennis Australia became one of the largest Australian sporting bodies to sign the Framework last year, a move co-author Hall hopes will inspire others.

“You’d hope that the prominence of major organisations like Tennis Australia and (hopefully) Cricket Australia taking the first step might encourage others to do a similar thing.

“You look at the plastic bag ban with supermarkets when one goes then the others tend to follow, so you hope there might be a similar reaction here.

“It would be great to see them use their visibility and power to take some decisive action to safeguard their sport.”

Sinclair is another desperate to see more bodies sign up and take responsibilities for their actions. The president hopes if fellow community clubs can follow his club’s lead, their unifying action might agitate change in governing organisations.

“The more community clubs we have signing up, the more we get these national bodies to take action. The sad truth is the fossil fuel industry have their hooks in these national sporting organisations.

“ANZ, one of the biggest funders of fossil fuel projects, is the main sponsor of the Australian Open. Santos – the gas company – is the major sponsor of the Tour Down Under.

“Alinta Energy – one of the top ten climate polluters in Australia – is a major sponsor of Cricket Australia.

“Alinta produce 20 million tonnes of pollution a year, and Cricket Australia turn around and say, ‘hey, the MCG has reduced its pollution by 20,000 tonnes.

“It’s great the MCG has done that, but it’s like planting 10 trees on one side of the hill and cutting down 100,000 on the other.”

Sport is in the unique position of being an agitator of action on climate change, if it wants to be. If governing bodies can understand their position of power to influence society and take a lead in tackling global warming, even the eyes of sceptics would be complicit in climate action.

In parting, Paul Sinclair described the role sport played in the destruction of the apartheid regime and subsequent creation of a fair South African society.

“When Nelson Mandela was released from jail, one of the first things he asked was, ‘is Don Bradman still alive?’.

“He saw sport as a great agent of social change, we need sport now to be an agent of action on climate change.”

Image by Rachael Sharman