Wildfire smoke forced tennis players to withdraw from Australian Open matches

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Climate change-driven air pollution is putting pressure on sports

Athletes at the Australian Open are breathing in poor-quality air polluted by bushfire smoke, making it nearly impossible for them to do their jobs. Dalila Jakupovic, ranked 210 in the world by the Women’s Tennis Association, withdrew from her qualifying match yesterday after smoke sent her into a coughing fit. Maria Sharapova’s match was abandoned after two hours of play in smoky air, and Novak Djokovic said before the start of the tournament that delaying the competition until the air cleared might be necessary, albeit as a last resort.

Questions over appropriate air quality conditions for professional sports have been ongoing since at least the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which had the highest levels of air pollution of any measured games. Bad air can impair athletic performance and impact athletes’ health. As fire seasons grow in length and intensity, leagues and athletic governing bodies will keep being confronted with the problem.

Breathing in polluted air over a short period of time can exacerbate respiratory and heart conditions. Over longer terms, it can increase the risks of heart disease and some cancers.

Physical activity increases the amount of air someone takes in per minute, so someone who is playing a sport in bad air would inhale more pollution than someone who is just sitting outside. “Because they work so hard and breathe so much, athletes actually turn out to be a sensitive subgroup to pollutants,” says Ed Avol, a professor of clinical preventive medicine and air pollution expert at the University of Southern California.

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