31 Jan 2015

Australian sport feels the heat

1:32 pm on 31 January 2015

Scientists are warning the viability of Australia's $12 billion sports market is being threatened by global warming and extreme weather events.

A new report from Australia's Climate Institute said policies for dealing with extreme heat were variable and often inadequate and should be urgently reviewed, the ABC reports.

Andy Murray takes a drink in intense heat during a match in Melbourne.

Andy Murray takes a drink in intense heat during a match in Melbourne. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Failure to do so could lead to an athlete's death, the report warned.

"We really need to take heat seriously in Australia. Unless we change the way we play sport, there will be deaths," environmental health expert Dr Liz Hanna said.

"When we exercise, heat generated increases 10 fold, so scheduling physical activity - particularly endurance activity - in hot months definitely becomes a health risk.

"For athletes ... their body is their tool of trade, and it's unfair for us to risk the tools of their trade by forcing them to engage in physical activity for hours on end in highly threatening and risky environments."

It has been a year since extreme heat wreaked havoc at the Australian Open, with players forced to endure temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius on the courts.

Some athletes said the conditions were akin to "tap-dancing on a fry pan".

Malcolm Speed, director at the Richmond Football Club and former chief executive of the International Cricket Council, said the 2014 Open was a "key moment".

"Sport needs to lift its game in relation to the environment," he said.

"This report highlights that and it will be an item that will move up the agenda for all sports."

Mr Speed said he believed sport has a leadership role to play in changing behaviours and setting standards - from better use of resources like water and energy-efficient grounds and stadiums.

He said the welfare of athletes and spectators at all levels is paramount.

"We need to be careful that we react but don't overreact to this science," he said.

"Sport is played in extreme weather - that's part of the challenge of sport, that's part of the drama of sport. But we need to be careful we don't get too bogged down in tradition.

"If schedules need to be changed because of extreme heat, that will need to be addressed quickly."

But with multi-million-dollar sponsorships and complicated scheduling involved in many domestic and international events, both Mr Speed and Dr Hanna said cancelling an event would not be easy.

The report's release was timed to mark 12 months since a severe Melbourne heatwave almost derailed the Australian Open.

It concludes that sporting bodies need to seriously consider the impacts of climate change.

"Climate change and extreme weather events threaten the viability of much of our sport as it's currently played, either in the backyard, at local grounds, or in professional tournaments," Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said.

"With greater warming, more extreme heat, changes in rainfall and more intense storms, there are questions about just how far we can push players in elite and local sport.

"Questions also grow about whether the way some of our sport is played, or watched, is safe or sustainable."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs