Unexpected timeout offers global sport chance to tackle its pollution problem | Tanya Aldred | Sport

With no live sport to watch or play, exercise has never been more precious. Those minutes of freedom, an uncurling away from bad posture on the sofa, lifting the spirits and boosting the heart rate. But, as you slurp your morning lungfuls of air, have your noticed a change? Think the sky has looked a more perfect cornflower, noticed the stars shining a little brighter?

You would be right on all three, the falling levels of air pollution a tiny silver lining to our dreadful predicament. Yet air pollution also has a more sinister role in the coronavirus story.

Some preliminary studies in the US seem to suggest a link between a high death rate and high levels of pollution (a similar link was found during the Sars outbreak in 2003), with Covid-19 able to attach itself to particulate pollution. So improving air quality might be one of the ways out of this crisis, as well as helping the 4.2 million people who die annually from your bog‑standard air pollution. But where does sport fit in?

We know athletes are particularly at risk from poor air quality because of their higher respiratory rates during exercise – children in particular. And around the world athletes have started to complain: Novak Djokovic, who criticised pollution levels in China; the New South Wales spinner Steve O’Keefe, who described the air quality during a Sheffield Shield game as fires burned outside Sydney as like “smoking 80 cigarettes a day”; the tennis player Dalila Jakupovic, who pulled out of her Australian Open game because she couldn’t breathe.

Not only that, but pollution also seems to impede performance. A fascinating essay by Matthew Campelli in the Sustainability Report this week examines just that, revealing that early trials seem to show air pollution reducing the productivity rates of German footballers and impeding decision-making in chess players and baseball umpires.

This dovetails alarmingly with the Hit for Six report published last September, which described the effects of extreme heat not only on cricketers’ ability to function physically but also their capacity, and umpires’ capacity, to make decisions.

Throw in the bushfires in Australia last year which threatened the cricket season, the cancellation of matches in the path of a super typhoon during the Rugby World Cup in Japan, cricketers vomiting on the pitch because of air pollution in Delhi, cricket stadiums being destroyed by hurricanes in the West Indies, the ski season literally melting away and rising sea levels threatening coastal infrastructure, and the picture of sport in a climate emergency starts to look less than rosy.

Add our current crisis, with normal sporting relations unlikely to restart any time soon, and sport is looking at an extremely complicated situation. Maybe the Premier League can restart in a couple of months, but what about European football? Players may get special passports which mean they avoid quarantine at airports, but what about away supporters? In Japan, meanwhile, nervous voices are already expressing doubt over the Tokyo Olympics mark two, pencilled in for the summer of 2021.

An existential problem then, and one that coincides with an enforced period of contemplation. Much like the rest of the world, sport has the opportunity to hit the reset button. It is going to have to work within a smaller framework, with a much emptier purse, in a world where air travel is expensive, and perceived as dangerous to human health as well as the planet, as the earth grows ever warmer – with 2020 already set to be the hottest year yet.

Novak Djokovic said he had experienced air quality issues in tournaments in China

Novak Djokovic said he had experienced air quality issues in tournaments in China. Photograph: TPN/Getty Images

Some might argue that with no gate receipts, no bar takings and a fixture list with more holes than games, sport is in no place to be gazing at its environmental soul. But if not now, when?

On Wednesday the sports sector held its own version of the Petersberg climate dialogue, a Zoom meeting organised by Basis (the British Association for Sustainable Sport) with the idea of bringing the sector together. The idea is to hold a similar meeting weekly for the foreseeable future, to try to hammer out a way for sport to move forward.

Russell Seymour, chief executive of Basis, says: “This is not how we want to live our lives, locked down, insular. But this is the moment, the opportunity for sport to reflect and decide to rebuild its operations in a more environmentally sustainable way. After the economic crash in 2008 people said: ‘We clearly have to make a change, the current way we are living our lives isn’t working.’ Then global emissions jumped by 6% the following year. The current crisis has shown us that making changes can have a big impact and very quickly.”

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This is sport’s chance to evaluate properly its current plight – as some have already started to do. To embrace localism. Accept that less is more. Ask itself why. Why do the England cricket teams have to tour three countries in a winter? Why is the ICC planning to host T20 World Cups in consecutive years? Why on earth hold football’s European Championship across 12 host cities? Why must the Olympic Games move to a different city every four years? Why squeeze every drop out of athletes for maximum profit until they cannot cope and break down, both mentally or physically? Why not demand lower levels of pollution around sports grounds for the good of athletes and fans? Reset. Breathe.

Who has time for sustainability now? Sport does. It has to.

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