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The Olympic records nobody wants to break

Extreme heat threatens elite sports.

By Mina Lee

No group of individuals is more acutely aware of the connection between the environment, health, and its impact on performance than athletes. The blood, sweat, and tears of athletes are celebrated when their bodies are pushed to the limit and new records are set. We can hope that the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio will bring even more universal joy of record-breaking wins.

But records are harder to break when the environment is working against the athletes. Climate change is negatively affecting sports and recreation, an impact which is often overlooked. In Rio, for example, many spectators, and even athletes, have decided to skip the Olympics completely due to concerns about the Zika virus, which has been shown to thrive in the warmer, wetter conditions brought on by climate change. Even as temperatures are reported to remain low, the fear of Zika contagion persists among some of the world’s greatest athletes.

The world’s top-ranked golfer, Jason Day, told the Telegraph, “While it has always been a major goal to compete in the Olympics on behalf of my country, playing golf cannot take precedent over the safety of our family. I will not place them at risk.”

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It is not just mosquito-borne diseases like Zika that are affecting the athletes via climate change. With 2015 being the hottest year in history, and temperatures reaching new highs every month, athletes are facing new challenges simply from training and competing outside.

A player named Jack Sock and a ball boy collapsed during the U.S. Open Tennis Championships and at the Wimbledon Championships, respectively, from record high temperatures. Wilco Kelderman, a professional Dutch road bicycle racer, crashed his bike during Tour de France this year, due to the extreme heat that melted his tire’s tubular glue.

Furthermore, extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and heavy droughts are exacerbated by climate change. After Hurricane Sandy in 2012, New York City had to cancel its annual marathon for the first time in history, which had more than 47,000 runners enrolled. In June of 2016, the PGA Greenbrier Classic in West Virginia had to be cancelled due to a rare heavy flooding event.

Cities that previously hosted the Winter Olympics may be unsuitable to host the games in the coming decades. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO
Cities that previously hosted the Winter Olympics may be unsuitable to host the games in the coming decades. CREDIT: UNIVERSITY OF WATERLOO

Then there are the sports that may be next-to-impossible as temperatures rise. As Environment America elegantly stated, winter sports are “skating on thin ice.” Climate change could completely eliminate their winter sports. Jeremy Jones, a professional snowboarder and the founder of the non-profit group, Protect Our Winters, said in an interview with Ben & Jerry’s, “…there’s been some alarming concerns in my own mountain range in California. One of the main reasons I live where I live is because of the chair lift KT-22 at Squaw Valley. It’s struggled to stay open the last four years and has largely been closed.”

Similarly, the iconic Iditarod dog sled race has had to change its routes repeatedly in the past 13 years because there wasn’t enough snow on the original routes. And the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 resulted in multiple injuries for athletes because of the poor and slushy snow conditions.

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Since Sochi, more than 100 athletes signed a petition urging world leaders to take action on climate change at COP21 in Paris. Furthermore, a new campaign called “1.5°C, the record we cannot break,” promoted by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Climate Action Network, and CARE International, has emerged prior to the Rio Olympics, asserting that not all records, especially global temperatures, should be celebrated when they fall.

It is interesting to note that the Rio Olympics has committed “to reducing the environmental footprint left by the preparation and operation of the event.” The next Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 in South Korea, is also said to be striving for carbon neutrality. So not all is yet lost for our athletes.

We can hope that these Olympic sustainability promises echo through each of the 207 countries (27 more countries than are signed onto the Paris Agreement as of August 3) that are participating in the Olympics this year.

Mina Lee writes articles and produces original artwork for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture. You can follow her at @minalee89.