Melbourne Park, which hosts the Australian Open, is seen in the foreground as bushfire smoke shrouds Melbourne's skyline on Tuesday. (AAP Image/via Reuters)
On his Twitter account, Sumit Nagal put up photographs of his last practice session ahead of the Australian Open. He’s been in Melbourne for a few days now, training for the qualifying round of the year’s first Grand Slam, but there’s something different in the air this time.
“It’s not the same Melbourne it used to be. The smoke, I’ve never seen anything like this in the four times I’ve been here,” Nagal told The Indian Express. This ‘Melbourne’ reminds him more of the Delhi that he’s based in, and that helped him breathe through the smoky clouds raging over Australia from the bushfires.
“We come from India which is (one of the) most polluted countries, if I am not wrong, so this is not bad compared to it,” he adds.
But it wasn’t as easy for the other players trying for a spot in the Australian Open main draw. Women’s world no 180 Dalila Jakupovic of Slovenia sunk to the surface of Court 3 during her first-round qualifying match in a coughing fit, unable to take in the hazardous smoke-filled air.
“I was really scared that I would collapse. That’s why I went onto the floor because I couldn’t walk anymore,” she said to The Guardian after being forced to retire from the match against Swiss player Stefanie Vogele. “I don’t have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like heat. The physio came again and I thought it would be better. But the points were a bit longer and I just couldn’t breathe anymore and I just fell on the floor.”
Canadian player Eugenie Bouchard too struggled in her three-set win.
“I felt like it was tough to breathe and a bit nauseous. I felt like the conditions got worse as the match went on... but I was out there for a long time. It’s not ideal to play in these conditions. Just like the heat rule, there should be an air-quality rule,” she told The Guardian.
At nearby Kooyong, a suburb roughly nine kilometres away from Melbourne Park, five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova had her exhibition match against Germany’s Laura Siegemund cut short because of poor air quality.
Tuesday was just the first day of the qualifying round, the Australian Open proper is still six days away. And the bushfires that have singed the country, and have claimed 27 lives, are still raging.
The wildfires started in the state of Victoria on November 21 last year in East Gippsland, around 350 km from Melbourne. By December 30, it was reported that the fires had reached the outer suburbs of Australia’s second largest city – including Bundoora which is 16km away from Melbourne Park. It’s been just over a fortnight since then, and the smoke from the fires, along with the smoke from the New South Wales bushfires that have wafted over the venue for the year’s first Grand Slam, has raised major health concerns in the city.
‘Air quality worst in the world’
“Overnight for Melbourne (air quality) did reach the worst in the world,” Brett Sutton, Victoria’s chief health officer, told the Australian Associated Press on Tuesday. “Those conditions overnight are obviously when there are cooler temperatures and the particulate matter can settle very low to the ground. It will improve through the course of today, I’m told by the chief environmental scientist, so with warmer temperatures that particulate matter will lift.”
Accordingly, officials at Tennis Australia decided to delay practice sessions on the courts and start of play by an hour.
“This morning the smoke haze was significant,” tournament director Craig Tiley was quoted by The Guardian. “And based on advice, we made the decision to suspend practice and, as a result, to start the qualifying matches an hour later than originally scheduled. At any time, we’re not going to put them [players and staff] in harm’s way or make any decision that’s going to negatively impact their health and well-being.”
The ‘advice’ though can be subjective. And former world no. 6 Gilles Simon took to Twitter to mock that decision.
“When we find doctors who say that playing at 45 degrees is not dangerous at the AO and referees who say that the wet grass is not slippery at Wimbledon, we must be able to find an expert who certifies that the air quality is sufficient right?” read the translation of his tweet in French.
Conditions remained ‘unhealthy’, according to the air quality index (AQI) reading in the Melbourne city centre and the suburbs around 2200 hrs local time on Tuesday. The city centre area, which includes Melbourne Park, was rated with an AQI of 190 — unhealthy. But the suburbs nearby had a worse rating of ‘very unhealthy.’ Brighton, 11 km to the south-east was 218; Box Hill, 14 km east was 208; Brooklyn, 10km west of Melbourne Park was 212.
In comparison, the area near Connaught Place in New Delhi was 168 at 1800 local time.
The Victorian government has issued health advisories on its website. “If you’re in an area with poor (unhealthy) or very poor (very unhealthy) air quality… the advice is to stay indoors, close doors and windows and keep activity levels low,” stated one directive. Another simply said “avoid all outdoor physical activity.”
A demonstrator wearing face paint attends a protest over Australia's bushfires crisis outside the Australian Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina on January 10.
These instructions though don’t apply to the tennis players, hoping to start the season on a high.
Tournament officials have asserted their own preparedness for the smoke while the competition is on. They posted a statement on its social media account: “We have three roofed stadiums and eight indoor courts (which are usually used only for practice) at Melbourne Park. In the unlikely case of extreme smoke conditions, the roofs will be closed on the three stadium courts and play will continue in their air-conditioned and air-filtered environment. If smoke infiltrates the three stadium courts, the air conditioning system will filter it out.”
In addition to this, the Australian Open is the only Grand Slam that has an extreme heat policy that allows a 10-minute break after the third set of a men’s singles match and the second set of a women’s singles match. In some cases, play can even be suspended.
There appears to be no such smoke index set for the tournament, and it will all come down to the arbitrary “advice” that will affect each player differently, to determine if a match should continue.
But the Australian Open is set to go on, with the devastating bushfires blazing through the periphery of Melbourne Park.
Winter sports: Mercury rises, snow melts
The Luge World Cup at Winterleiten, Austria, last week was rescheduled. Cancellations have become worryingly regular, as snow reliant winter sports venues look on helplessly as the white cover goes missing. India's multiple time Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan says, "For centuries, winter sports has used stable weather patterns to create reliable conditions for outdoor training and competition. With so many extreme weather events recently there have been huge disruptions for all of us whose livelihood is directly linked to climate. We had negligible snowfall in the last 2 Winter Olympics and many traditional winter sports venues are decommissioned." Research suggests by 2030 half the Alpine glaciers could be under threat and ski resorts could be down by 30 percent. Costs of artificial snowmaking have gone up by 70 percent in the last decade. "It is our job to give testimony that climate change is real. The world we all took for granted is fast disappearing," Keshavan says.
Marathon: Timings suffer in heat
Climate change and resultant heightened temperatures are dragging down timings of most amateur runners, with even elite runners pushed towards racing in lower mercury are restricted to target the winter / fall races for better times. An increase of 1 degree celicus above optimal temperature leads to a speed loss of 0.03%, points research. So, even as bespoke events like the Nike sub-2 hour attempt aim at dropping below the barrier, rise in temperatures can reduce occurrences of course records being broken. Logistically, the peaking temperatures have meant increased water points, a change in fluids permitted to restore electrolytes, change in clothing and training patterns. Concerns about the heat have reluctantly forced a shift of venue at the 2020 Olympics from Tokyo to Sapporo, 500 miles north and six degrees cooler.
Football: Climate changes calendar
Since 1962, temperatures in 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar have gone up by five degrees. Last year, the mercury soared to an all-time high 50.3 degree Celsius. It prompted Fifa to push the tournament from the summer to November and December. However, the world track and field championships, held last September-October, should set off alarms. In Doha, first-aid responders outnumbered competitors. To combat the heat, Qatar plans to air-condition the outdoors. The playing fields will be forced cooled, and under each stadium seat will be a vent to comfort fans. Such measures could compound the damage, seeing how Qatar's carbon emissions per capita are the highest in the world. Football in Britain is facing its own challenges. A Climate Coalition report in 2018 estimated that grassroots clubs lose five weeks per season to bad weather and more than a third lose two to three months.