After an exciting start to Copa América, South America’s largest and oldest soccer tournament, eight teams remain in a fight for the title in Chile’s capital. But a trophy may not be the only thing players fight for in the coming weeks — they could be fighting for their breath, too.
Air quality in Santiago has reached dangerous levels, prompting authorities to declare an environmental emergency for the first time in 16 years. Industries have shut their doors and cars are being kept off the roads, but there’s been no serious discussion about cancelling any tournament games.
Santiago’s smog problem is concerning for the players’ health and performance, according to sports medicine specialists. When running, athletes inhale higher amounts of air through the mouth, which “lacks the filter system of the nose.” An increased intake of air means an increased intake of pollutants.
To add to the smog problem, the lack of rain is worsening the city’s air quality, and along with it, possibly the respiratory health of soccer players, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
— Prensa Libre (@prensa_libre) June 22, 2015
The city of more than five million people has been grappling with the smog issue for years, but the air quality still remains a hazard to residents.
Jorge Tomas Asecio, a U.S. resident originally from Chile, told ThinkProgress the problem was hard to solve because of Santiago’s geography. “Santiago was built where it is, way back when, because cities in valleys were less prone to attack and were way easier to defend,” he said. “But it’s exactly that reason — the fact that Santiago is in a valley — that seems to really make the problem a tough task to fix.”
Santiago isn’t the first city to deal with serious air pollution problems during a major sporting event. When Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, much of the media coverage and discussion revolved around the country’s poor air quality. Pollution levels in the Chinese city were dangerously high leading up to the games, but improved after authorities banned certain vehicles, factories, and plants from operating. By the time the games began, pollution levels were under control and safe for athletes, according to Jacques Rogge, then-International Olympic Committee chief. But Rogge reiterated to the Guardian that outdoor events could be rescheduled in the event that smog levels increased.
Smog in Santiago has not been met with the same precaution in the lead-up to Copa América. City authorities and soccer federation officials alike have repeated that the games will not be cancelled or suspended, regardless of the risk posed by the poor air quality.
The city has implemented some regulations to try to bring pollution levels down, however. Residents with license plates ending in certain numbers are banned from driving on assigned days, firewood burning and outdoor barbecues are prohibited, and more than 900 industries aren’t open for business as the city tries to get its smog level under control.
For many Chilean fans, lighting up the grill before a soccer game is tradition. This year, they risk paying fines for violating environmental regulations if they want to barbecue outside. So far, these regulations haven’t done enough to control smog.
With the games starting up again on Wednesday and the city in a state of emergency on Monday, many believe other measures must be taken to protect players. But Santiago governor Claudio Orrego said disrupting the Copa América schedule was not an option, despite high smog levels.
“We’ve spoken with the authorities,” he told international news agency AFP. “And if there’s one thing we can’t do, it’s suspend a match.”