2023 Was The Warmest On Record: What It Means For Sports You Love
2023 was the officially hottest year on record for our planet. It was the first year with all days over 1°C warmer than the pre-industrial period, in fact the global average temperature in 2023 was 1.48°C above pre-industrial levels, nearing the 1.5°C Paris Agreement threshold. Temperatures likely exceed those of any period in the last 100,000 years.
Scientific studies show that extreme weather events are likely to become more frequent or intense with climate change. As we set a path to more of the same or even worse, what can we expect our sports to look like in the future?
The impact on human health sits at the heart of sport and leisure in a changing climate. The physiological impacts of exertion in extreme heat include decline in athletic performance, muscle cramps, exhaustion, fainting, and loss of consciousness. Instances of athletes already experiencing these impacts are persistent; from tennis, baseball and softball, athletics, football and more. Young people participating in sport during extreme heat are particularly at risk, which is leading to some fatal consequences. Spectators and those working at sporting events are negatively impacted too.
In the future we can expect to see a heightened duty of care for athletes and young people, more frequent weather-related health alerts, acclimation periods, heat rules and cooling breaks being invoked more often, and if adverse conditions are deemed unsafe, changes to timing, scheduling or cancellations.
We have already seen several high profile sporting events being cancelled because of extreme weather events; Typhoon Hagibis cancelled two matches during the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan and flooding lead to the 2023 Formula 1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy being cancelled.
When these happen in real time during competitions or deep into planning phases, it can have operational and financial impacts on the host and participating sports organisations. It can also impact travelling fans, who miss out on the spectacle but depending on the insurance they have in place with travel and accommodation providers may also financially lose out. Athletes themselves can miss out on performing for their team or country, earning caps or medals and even financial rewards.
Last year in Budapest, World Athletics Championships marathon race timings were changed to begin earlier in the day – at 7am – to avoid the high daytime temperatures of 35°C/95°F. To deal with the July 2022 heatwave in the UK, training for the England women’s football team during UEFA Euros campaign was also moved to earlier in the day to avoid the midday sun.
The biggest headache for event organisers and sports organisations involved is the last minute logistics juggle of these changes. However, depending on the event, broadcast could also be affected, which in turn could impact rights holders’ revenue. For fans it means uncertainty when attending sports events that they’ll happen when planned and the potential for an impaired fan experience. For athletes it could mean a change of sleep and training patterns, food intake timings and preparation.
Moving sporting events to a different time of the day, or the next day is one thing. But what about a wholesale move to a different time of year?
World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, has spoken out a number of times about climate change potentially impacting the scheduling of its major events including the World Championships. Saying they may need to look at “uncoupling some of the tougher endurance events from our world championships in the summer months.”
If this is decided far enough in advance, the logistics of event organising would be manageable, however it could impact broadcasters and rights if multiple sporting events overlap due to schedule changes. This in turn could impact viewers. For mega-sports events or competitions where athletes have regular season matches, it could affect team performance locally. For athletes, their competitions may take place at different times, and they may not get to compete alongside national team-mates.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which took place in 2021, to avoid the heat and humidity being experienced in the capital, organisers moved the marathon and race-walks 800km north to Sapporo. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work, as that day northern Japan also experienced the same record-breaking heatwave as Tokyo, with athletes competing in 35°C/95°F temperatures.
As well as these reactive changes, we will see longer-term locations shifts too. Research from University of Waterloo shows, at the current trend, that only one of the 21 cities that hosted the Winter Olympics in the past 100 years will have a climate suitable for winter sports by the end of the year 2100.
Existing hosts of sports and major competitions may no longer have the climate to support certain sports, however they may not see it as the end of the road, which is leading to…
The landscapes that have traditionally hosted winter sports are disappearing. Entire regional economies rely on winter sports tourism and events, they are looking to adapt to keep these economies alive. To delve deeper into the local push and pull of this, read this excellent piece by Gavin Fernie-Jones about the Savoie region of the French Alps. Artificial snowmaking is at the heart of this, with experts showing that water and energy needs to create artificial snow are extremely high.
Some parts of the world have sub-optimal climates for a given sport, but there are instances where both the finance and desire to create artificial ecosystems exist.
We can see this in smaller adaptations where the climate does not readily support a comfortable experience for athletes and fans. Such as energy-intensive air conditioning in outdoor stadiums, in Qatar for the men’s 2022 FIFA World Cup.
You could hardly call this example a change of landscape, but what if it goes from adapting for comfort to something else entirely. Such as creating a winter sports resort in the desert. That is what is happening for the 2029 Asian Winter Games, which is being hosted in Trojena, Saudi Arabia – the $500bn resort which will be available for winter sports for three months a year. It is reported that temperatures in the area range from -17°C (1.4°F) to 22°C (71.6°F) in winter, but snowfall is rare as the area is very dry. The resort will have to rely entirely on artificial snow as well as some dry ski slopes.
Is there a world where some sports cease?
In some places, we are seeing a transition away from sports happening already. The small ski resort of Métabief in France, concerned about depleting snow cover and wishing to keep a tourist trade, has introduced a range of off-snow activities, including an all-season toboggan run, winter mountain biking, caving and guided horse rides.
As a warming planet causes more seasonal uncertainty, the business case for some sports or leisure activities may stop making sense even before the ecosystems stop supporting them.
We can still do a lot
Using sports to communicate on the climate crisis can provide a powerful narrative to engage sports fans and participants about current and future risks, in a way that resonates with them.
Some of these impacts and risks are now baked in due to our changing climate, but there is still a lot we can do to avoid the worst outcomes. Sports organisations can continue to play a crucial leadership role by taking action, but there are many other groups in the ecosystem of sport and leisure that can play a part. Fans, athletes, suppliers, sponsors, brands and participants can use their voice and influence to effect positive change.
For a start:
- Ask if your sports team has signed up to UN Sports for Climate Action and what environmental commitments they’ve made.
- Think about who owns your club or team, as well as where you spend your money, and if these organisations appear to understand and show they prioritise climate action.
- If you care about the environment and want your club, team, league or governing body to visibly do more, get in contact and tell them.
- Find likeminded friends, colleagues, people in your network and talk about these issues, share information and educate those around you. A study in 2018 showed the power of a committed minority to shift conventional thinking and reshape society; taking only 25% to reach a tipping point.
- Vote for political leaders that take climate change and biodiversity loss seriously. Governments should be setting policy frameworks and incentives to enable positive change and behaviour.
- Think about your own participation in sport and how you can minimise your footprint and consumption; understanding that systemic change is needed, and the onus shouldn’t rest just on individual change.