Lessons from the World Cup: How climate change is changing sport

Just before the England national team took the field for their World Cup debut in Qatar in 2022, their official Twitter account posted a video of players pouring sweat to the edge of a training session and taking turns cooling off in front of a smoke machine. “It was tough,” England defender Conor Coady told the press after training. “It was something we had to get used to as a team [the heat]to feel it, to understand it.”

World Cups are usually held in early summer, but this year’s competition has been postponed due to the scorching Middle East heat. Even so, outside temperatures were hovering around the low 90s as hopeful teams arrived in Qatar in early November.

FIFA’s decision to hold the event in Qatar was controversial, ranging from its treatment of migrant workers, thousands of whom died of heatstroke, as it built hotels and stadiums for the event, to its position on LGBTQ+ rights. The health risks associated with its extreme heat added to these other concerns.

But it’s not the only major sporting event struggling with extreme conditions: This fall, the Women’s Alpine Ski World Cup was postponed by over a month and relocated to another venue after unseasonal rain made the route unsafe . Earlier this summer, a historic heatwave forced Tour du France organizers to spray water to keep the roads from melting.

From football to skiing, climate change is changing how and where sport can be played – from the elite to the neighborhood youth leagues. “Unless we change the nature of sport and adapt to these events,” said Walker Ross, lecturer in sport management at the University of Edinburgh, “even without sport, nature will continue.”

A member of the Italian Paralympic snowboard team rides a chairlift in Cervinia, Italy, 2020. COVID-19, lack of snow and high temperatures have made it difficult for ski resorts to stay open and train athletes. Mauro Ujetto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Rapidly changing conditions are already forcing teams to reconsider their preparation for the competition. At a recent workshop held at the Columbia Climate School, USA soccer team player Samantha Mewis described the intense preparations the team has been making to weather the heat in Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics (the event was held in September due to COVID-19). year 2021 instead of a pandemic).

“We weighed ourselves before and after exercise to track our water loss,” she explained, testing her urine for fluid content. Just prior to the trip to Japan, the team also conditioned themselves to the heat, which they said involved repeated cycling in a really hot room to practice keeping core body temperatures elevated for extended periods of time. “It was exhausting.”

“Generally speaking, training in the heat puts a much greater strain on your body,” said Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute, a research and advocacy organization formed to honor the legacy of the Minnesota Vikings linesman , who died of heat stroke . In order to cool down, blood flow must be redirected from the muscles to places that help the body regulate heat, such as the B. the skin. But some conditions can complicate this process.

“The body’s primary mechanism for dissipating heat is perspiration,” Stearns explained. Sweat evaporates more slowly in humid environments. Athletes dehydrate because they’re still sweating and losing electrolytes, but they’re not cooling down effectively. “That’s where you get into the danger zone.”

Soccer is one of many sports that are now paying close attention to what is known as wet bulb temperature (WBGT), which combines heat, humidity and other variables such as wind speed. If the wet-bulb temperature breaks 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit, FIFA now requires cooling breaks in either half, and officials are allowed to suspend or cancel the game. The rules were first introduced prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, when cool breaks were used for the first time in the Netherlands v Mexico match, and more recently during the Euro2020 competition. “Heat stroke is one of the leading causes of death in sports,” Stearns said.

But extreme heat and humidity also pose similar — if not worse — risks for amateur athletes. “At the youth level,” where the coach might be a parent or teacher, Andrew Grundstein, a geographer and climatologist at the University of Georgia, said of his Research focuses on heat and human health. “You are also unlikely to have medical staff available, such as an athletic trainer.” The consequences can be deadly: Between 1980 and 2009, 58 football players died from heat-related illnesses – most of them high school students.

A scatterplot showing the 5-year incidence of heat stroke among US student athletes from 1955 to the present.  A purple dashed line shows that the trend has increased exponentially over this period.
Grist/Clayton Aldern

Grundstein explains that athletes need to acclimate to the heat over time, which means they need to ramp up their training rather than jump right in with daily doubles in hot weather. “Coaches should adapt their drills to weather conditions,” he said, changing things like length and intensity. And if something does happen, it’s important to have an emergency management plan in place. Heatstroke from exertion is largely survivable if the person can be cooled quickly. (Foundationstone recommends having a tub that can be filled with ice or cold water.) Georgia once had some of the worst heat-related mortality rates among student athletes in the country. But in 2012, the Georgia High School Association implemented rules and safety measures to help protect student athletes. There have been no more heat-related deaths among soccer players since then.

The Korey Stringer Institute recently developed an assessment of state policies for high school athletes. Those standards are becoming more important, Grundstein says, as regions that historically haven’t been as hot experience more heatwaves. “Often they’re really unprepared because they’re not used to it,” he said. Coaches don’t know what warning signs to look out for, and athletes are less used to training in extreme heat.

While state athletic organizations can mandate safety measures for high school teams, for younger athletes, these are often made on an ad hoc basis. “It’s like the Wild West,” Stearns said. “There just aren’t many protective measures.” Nevertheless, many youth leagues are voluntarily adapting to changing conditions: The Seattle Youth Soccer Association, for example, has now developed both a heat cancellation policy and a “bad air guidance” due to the increasing level of wildfire smoke in the West.

Soccer Heatwave Nashville Tennessee Student Athlete
A coach applies a cold towel to a student during morning soccer practice at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2011.
AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Real-world conditions are often a combination of factors, making it even more difficult to develop rigorous protections for athletes. During heat waves, for example, naturally occurring air pollution called ozone can become concentrated — something that isn’t as immediately noticeable as visible wildfire smoke but can trigger asthma, another cause of sudden death.

“If youth sport is the next generation of professional sport then we may not be securing that future,” said Ross of the University of Edinburgh.

Looking to the future, some of the world’s greatest sporting competitions face uncertain fates. Qatar spent over US$200 billion preparing for the World Cup, including investments in technologies such as under-seat air diffusers that brought AC to the outdoor fields and stadiums. Sports venues are increasingly discussing this type of climate adaptation – but there is only a limited amount of technology. Ross recently published a study finding that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at normal levels, by 2050 there will only be 10 places that can reliably host the Winter Olympics. It is a poignant example of what is at stake for the future of the sport.


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