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Sports and Global Warming

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Christian Fay, 21, of Laytonsville, Md., gets in some stick time on a frozen pond in Montgomery County in January. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

By Dr. Tomi Wahlström |

Global warming is a controversial topic. However, the scientific community has more or less agreed that something is happening to our environment and that some climate change is happening. If this is the case, how will it impact sports? What will change? How do we prepare for these changes? Nobody knows for sure but it is interesting to speculate a bit. A lot has been written about this topic but there is still a lot of uncertainty and disagreement.

Many sports require outdoor venues and suitable weather. For example, skiing depends on the existence of snow and surfing requires waves. Many sports, like football and baseball, can be played indoors but building suitable facilities is expensive. There are many arenas that allow hockey and indoor soccer to be played regardless of the weather outside. These arenas are expensive to build and often require users to pay fees to access them. This makes participation in sports more expensive discouraging parents from getting their children involved. One of the possible outcomes of this is that lower socioeconomic classes are further excluded from many sports.

I recently visited the headquarters of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) in Colorado Springs and it was pointed out to me that Colorado Springs is the home of many sports organizations. This is mainly due to the number of rain free days that make it possible to play sports outdoors. It is also not excessively hot there like it would be in some other rain free locations. However, global warming could potentially endanger Colorado Springs’ status as such a sports capital. The Olympic Training Center could find another more suitable location, for example. Meanwhile, the ski resorts in Colorado could lose revenues as their season shortens. The white water rafting could be impacted causing further financial losses. Global warming could impact recreation as well as many sports that rely on good climate conditions. I witnessed this in Colorado when I lived there and know that it is real and already happening.

Climate does not only impact athletes. Sports spectators are also impacted. Anyone who has watched a football game under the blazing Florida sun knows how it feels to be sunburned and dehydrated after such sun and heat exposure. Global warming could also cause many cities to rethink plans to hold marathons. I recall watching the Chicago marathon runners collapse in the front of the balcony of my condo on Michigan Avenue less than a mile away from the finishing line. Many of them had to be taken to the emergency room by the ambulances waiting for them at Grant Park just because it was an unusually warm day for a marathon. I was personally saved from the heat only by the air conditioning of my condominium but many spectators on the street were not that lucky. What happens when this becomes the new normal?

I lived in Hawaii for a long time and have since lived in Florida and coastal Alabama. I have experienced numerous hurricanes and seen how beaches have been reshaped by rising sea levels. I also lived in California where there are large fires burning again as I am writing this. All of these events are becoming more and more frequent every year. I was born and raised in Helsinki, Finland, where we used to have permanent snow during winters. Those days are gone and so is the snow. So, anecdotally, I can validate what scientists around the world know. Changes are coming and sports will be impacted like everything else. Will we be ready?

Dr. Tomi Wahlström is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy.

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