At the Australian Open in 2014, Frank Dancevic saw a vision of Snoopy. Yes, Snoopy the cartoon dog.
It was not a joyful experience. Far from it. Dancevic was hallucinating during his first-round match at the tennis Grand Slam in Melbourne, where temperatures that day hit 43 C during a brutal heat wave. Not long into his match, the native of Niagara Falls, Ont., began to feel dizzy. Things only got worse from there. Dancevic caught glimpse of the beagle from Peanuts, then in the second set, he collapsed and lost consciousness.
After receiving medical attention during a short break, Dancevic was back on the court – in a sense. He was mentally checked-out and struggled to focus. And he was unable to push himself physically, afraid of what could happen. Dancevic lost in straight sets.
“I don’t want to risk my life for playing a match. As humans, we’re not made to play under these conditions,” said Dancevic, who’s since retired from the pro tour and now serves as captain of Canada’s Davis Cup team.
“It’s getting hotter and hotter every year to play. And it’s getting more difficult to play these matches, for athletes in general.”
This year has proved no exception. Weather-related incidents are piling up in sports this summer as record-high temperatures and frequent heat waves punish much of North America and Europe.
About 75 minutes into the Manitoba Marathon in June, the race was cancelled as temperatures jumped above 30 C. A Tour de France rider was hospitalized in July with heat stroke. And the New York City Triathlon was shortened in late July because of a heat wave. (It had been cancelled in 2019 for the same reason.)
Moreover, this year’s World Cup – usually a summer event – will be held in November and December, shielding the soccer tournament from the hottest conditions in Qatar. (Recent temperatures in Doha, Qatar’s capital, have felt like 50 C.)
To be sure, crummy weather has always been a hazard for outdoor sports, and it’s unlikely that a summer World Cup would have been feasible in the Middle East in decades past.
But as global temperatures rise, extreme weather events – such as heat waves and tropical storms – are becoming more frequent and intense, posing a risk to athlete health and disrupting the sports schedule. It could even prompt a rethink of when sports are played.
“You don’t have to be a devotee of climate change or a denier to know the world is getting hotter,” said Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, at the Tokyo Olympics last year. “It probably will mean a global discussion around the calendar and how we stage events.”
Already, big changes are being made. At the Tokyo Games, the marathons and race walks were moved 800 kilometres north to Sapporo. (Conditions were still hot and humid.) The Texas Rangers can close the roof at their baseball stadium and crank up the air conditioning. (The AC will also be blasted at the World Cup, despite the move to cooler months.) When the heat is especially bad, tennis matches are delayed until nighttime.
Even so, events aren’t being rescheduled permanently for climate-related reasons, said Madeleine Orr, founder of the Sport Ecology Group, a collective of academics studying the effects of climate change on sports. Major events are planned years in advance, she noted, and broadcasters pay billions to lock games into certain time slots.
“Seasonal shifts aren’t happening yet,” she said.
It’s a similar story for endurance events – marathons, triathlons and bike races – that are staged on summer weekends. Organizers are hesitant to change dates and relinquish a hard-earned section of the amateur-sports calendar. The Manitoba Marathon, for instance, is a Father’s Day tradition in Winnipeg. Despite its heat-induced cancellation this year, the race will be held on its usual weekend in 2023.
“Hindsight being what it is, they probably should have postponed the race,” said Tracey Machan, a participant who was told the marathon was cancelled about 11 kilometres into her run. “And I do think that they should be considering a different date” in the future because of the heat, she added.
Many leagues and events have a heat policy that mandates a break in play when thresholds are met. They tend to use broader measures of heat, such as the wet-bulb globe temperature, which combines temperature, humidity and other factors into one value. An increase in humidity inhibits the body’s ability to cool itself through perspiration, making it a key safety consideration.
Those rules can certainly reduce risk – just not eliminate it.
Take the Tokyo Olympics, which had stifling heat and humidity. The “extreme weather policy” was activated for tennis, allowing the athletes to take a 10-minute break between the second and third sets. Paula Badosa of Spain – currently the No. 4-ranked women’s player – didn’t make it that far. After the first set of her quarter-final match, she was forced to retire owing to heat stroke and was taken off the court by wheelchair.
Heat stroke, which occurs when the body overheats and can’t cool down, is the most serious of exertional heat illnesses. If left untreated, it can lead to organ damage or death. Since 1995, 70 football players in the United States have died from heat stroke, most of them high schoolers, according to a national database of sports injuries.
It is, however, easy to treat when identified. “You just need ice water and a tub,” said Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. “It’s like $200 and co-ordinating with your emergency services.”
For some athletes, the heat spells opportunity.
Evan Dunfee, a race walker from Richmond, B.C., has notched some of his best results in sweltering conditions, including a bronze medal in the 50-kilometre event at the Tokyo Games. Over many years, Dunfee has worked with coaches and sports scientists to prepare for the heat, which he describes as a “great equalizer” in bridging the gap with faster competitors.
The strategy can be extensive. At the 2019 world athletics championships in Doha, there was rarely a time that Dunfee wasn’t doing something to temper the heat. Just before the start, he took an ice bath to keep his core temperature lower. During the race, on a two-kilometre loop, Dunfee grabbed items from tables every three minutes or so: hydration, icy hats, sopping sponges. Over four hours of racing, he dumped more than 50 litres of chilly water over his body.
The strategy paid off. In the final 10 kilometres of the race, as many of his rivals were wilting in the heat, Dunfee ramped up his pace and passed two of them, finishing with a bronze medal.
“I stubbornly say that it’s the athlete’s responsibility to handle the conditions they’re dealt,” said Dunfee, who has a kinesiology degree. “There are very few situations in which, I would say, conditions aren’t manageable.”
He does concede, however, that things are different for amateurs. “My opinion would be incredibly different if we were talking about a local fun run. In that case, absolutely, there are times that you’ve just got to say, ‘Nope, we can’t do this, it’s too dangerous.’”
On-site medical resources can vary widely from race to race, along with safety protocols. “Mass-participation events are just the wild west,” Stearns said. “You’re at the whim of whatever medical system they’ve put in place.”
As ever, the response to extreme heat is a work in progress – but for some, not quick enough.
The Australian Open has tweaked its heat policy several times, including just months after the 2014 tournament, when many players – Dancevic among them – complained of a lax approach to safety from tournament officials, who initially went on the defensive.
“We evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions,” Tim Wood, then the chief medical officer, told the BBC.
“There will be some players who complain and no one is saying it is terribly comfortable to play out there, but, from a medical perspective, we know that man is well adapted to exercising in the heat. Whether it is humane or not is a whole other issue.”
More than eight years later, Dancevic is unwavering in his view of that matter.
“It was a judgement error from the tournament to be playing matches in those circumstances,” he said. “It’s dangerous for athletes. It’s dangerous for the fans. It’s dangerous for people to be out there in that extreme heat.”
With a report from The Associated Press