A screenshot of a moment in an India v. Pakistan match for the Asia Cup, September 4, 2022. Image: YouTube
- Cricket is particularly popular in some South Asian countries and in the West Indies, and all these countries are in line to suffer some of the worst effects of the climate crisis.
- Players have experienced a wide range of health effects like heat exhaustion, stress, fainting, vomiting, diarrhoea and respiratory issues due to the rigours of the sport.
- Of all the cricket-playing nations, only Australia has published guidelines for playing in extreme heat conditions.
- They include recommendations for time of play, appropriate clothing, provision of water and ice, player rest and rotation, environmental controls and medical support.
- The International Cricket Council is also yet to join the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework.
As a medical student in Pune, I recollect the case of an athlete participating in a cross-country race and dying at the end. He successfully completed the course but had pushed himself beyond his physiological limits without pacing and hydrating himself. His death was due to dehydration, leading to acute kidney failure followed by the other organs in his body shutting down.
The climate crisis will have severe consequences for sportspersons, especially if their sport of choice is played outdoors and during the day. While scientists still need to conduct attribution studies to determine the odds that an extreme weather event was caused by the crisis, those of the future will be a direct consequence with more and more certainty.
The world of sports itself is also a major contributor to climate change. The carbon footprint of the summer Olympics has been slowly rising. Beijing 2008 was estimated to have emitted 1.2 million tonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide; London 2012 emitted 3.4 MT; and Rio de Janeiro 2016 emitted 3.6 MT. Together with the World Cups, F1 races, the Grand Slam tournaments, rugby leagues, etc., sporting events may be responsible for as much as 10 MT of carbon dioxide a year.
As a result, it merits asking both what sports can do for the climate crisis and what the crisis should force sportspersons to do.
Of all the sports played outdoors, cricket is likely to be affected the most by climate change because of the conditions and duration of play. Even now, during the ongoing Asia Cup tournament in Dubai and Sharjah, players routinely sweat enough to soak their shirts, with sweat pouring out of batter’s helmets and fielders substituting out due to cramps and dehydration.
Cricket is currently the second most-popular sport in the world, after football, and enjoys the support of two to three billion fans. The game is particularly popular in some South Asian countries and in the West Indies, and all these countries are in line to suffer some of the worst effects of the climate crisis, including extreme heat events, wildfires, storms and drought. Australia and the UK, where cricket is quite popular, have also been suffering dangerous heat indices – deadly combinations of high relative humidity and high air temperature.
Test cricket is played over five continuous days at a time, with players donning thick pads, gloves and helmets that impede ventilation. A 2019 report on cricket and climate change noted that a professional batter could generate enough heat in a day’s play as a person who has run a full marathon. No wonder, then, that cricket players have experienced a wide range of health effects like heat exhaustion, stress, fainting, vomiting, diarrhoea and respiratory issues due to the rigours of the sport. Their experiences are also exacerbated by air pollution and playing on waterlogged pitches, which can host pests and fungi.
However, it remains that of all the cricket-playing nations, only Australia has published guidelines for playing in extreme heat conditions. Based on the heat index, they include recommendations for time of play, appropriate clothing, provision of water and ice, player rest and rotation, environmental controls and medical support.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) should put together a comprehensive safety strategy that all of its member-countries are made to follow, in similar vein, instead of waiting for each country to draft its own guidelines.
ICC’s task cut out
Likewise, the ICC should also follow in FIFA’s footsteps and join the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. The framework envisions sports organisations playing a major role in increasing awareness of the climate crisis and promoting sustainable behaviour to reduce the carbon footprints of sporting bodies and their events. The British journalist David Goldblatt published an influential report in 2020, and excoriated the ICC for its “stick your head in the sand denial”. He argued that cricket needs to “get its act together as a whole bunch of trouble is not that far away”.
Goldblatt’s 2020 report noted how drought caused 13 Indian Premier League (IPL) matches to be moved from Maharashtra in the 2016 season and how Indian cricketers were restricted to 120-second showers in 2018 in Cape Town. To conserve water, India’s National Green Tribunal has mandated that only treated wastewater be used to water pitches. In addition, administrators should also reduce emissions by maximising the use of energy from renewable sources and eliminating unnecessary travel.
The report also noted that “racism and exclusion in sports has not gone away, but now it is joined by a new abnormality – the risks, dangers and disruptions posed by climate change to playing sport, to playing safely and happily on this planet”. It continued that “the climate emergency places a disproportionate burden on people with low incomes in the global South, and Black and minority ethnic communities in the global North”. Its main recommendations were that all global sporting federations and local leagues should:
- Sign the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework,
- Commit to their sporting operations becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, with a penalty of cancellation if they don’t attain the target,
- Governments and sporting ministries make this target a precondition for future funding, and
- The global sports industry needs to support low-carbon over high-carbon sporting events
In my occupational medicine career, I have treated many industrial workers who have also been known as ‘industrial athletes’. These are essentially frontline workers who have put their bodies and their lives on the line to earn their wages. They include sewer and sanitation workers, emergency responders, gardeners, firefighters, warehouse workers, agricultural labourers and others. The outdoor ‘industrial athlete’ spends more time exposed to the vagaries of the environment and is at greater risk of being affected by the climate crisis than the professional sports athlete.
I recollect the case of a warehouse worker who also worked as a professional wrestler (his ring name was “The Dark Avenger”). Over many treatment sessions for his injured back, he recounted how outdoor warehouse work was more traumatic to the body than wrestling.
In August 2019, the New England Journal of Medicine published a landmark study that showed how agricultural workers were falling sick and dying from chronic kidney disease of unknown origin (CKDu). The main cause of CKDu was heat exposure and dehydration, resulting from working for many hours in hot and humid conditions, leading to increased hospitalisation risk and mortality. With millions of agricultural workers worldwide, CKDu is potentially global in prevalence.
This said, sportspersons have greater access to funds for their healthcare and safety than many others who often toil in similarly exacting conditions. But as long as the money keeps flowing, there is little incentive to improve safety. This attitude has resulted in major industrial accidents. The sports sector, including cricket administration, would do well to pay heed and avert potential disasters among the world’s millions of aspiring athletes by implementing meaningful safety measures – before the litigation begins.
V. Ramana Dhara is a Professor of Public Health and Occupational Medicine and a former member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal. He tweets at @RamanaDhara.