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Extreme Sports: How Violent Weather Impacts Our Favorite Games — And The Olympics

by Max Frankel

As Roy Oswalt toed the pitching rubber to deliver a pitch in the fourth inning of a scoreless game in Arlington, Texas on Sunday, a lightning bolt striking just outside the stadium sent the players and umpires scrambling for cover. Check it out:

Ranger’s catcher Mike Napoli ran for the dugout without hesitation; Josh Willingham, the runner on first at the time, fell to all fours; and Ben Revere, a Twins outfielder who wasn’t on the field at the time later tweeted: “My heart stopped when I heard the thunder at the stadium. Glad no heard me scream like a little girl too!!! Lol.”

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Rain and lightning delays have always been common in baseball and every other outdoor sport. But an increase in extreme weather has the potential to dramatically alter the sporting landscape.

You may recall two years ago, the heat that marred the Vancouver Olympics (see “Is that airlifted snow on your Olympic ski mountain, or is your enormous helicopter just happy to see me?”). As Tim Gayda, a leader of the Olympic organizing committee, said at the time “Hopefully, winter will come back.”

The UK just experienced their wettest June on record, and the London Olympics are only a couple weeks away, so there has been (fast and) furious planning:

A quarter of a million rain ponchos, an army of volunteers equipped with umbrellas and rain jackets, and five dedicated weather forecasters….

Across the pond, in late June, Tropical Storm Debby sat over Florida for four days, inundating the state with torrential rains. Some areas of Florida received more than 20 inches of rain. On June 24th, Debby reached Clearwater, Florida, where it dumped enough water to turn Bright House Field, home of the Clearwater Threshers of the Florida State League, into a small inland sea.

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Some of that rain would have been helpful in Colorado, where the Waldo Canyon Wildfire is now 98% contained after burning some 18,000 acres since June 23rd. The fire destroyed roughly 350 homes and will costs tens of millions of dollars to fund a recovery.

On June 27th, organizers of the 90th annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb announced the delay of the race from July 8th until August 12th due to the fire. The Climb is a unique motorsports even that draws competitors from all over the world. While certainty certainly a superficial impact compared to the real tragedy of deaths, destruction, and displaced residents, the situation is an example of how extreme events can impact outdoor sports.

The Colorado fire was exacerbated by an intense heatwave that set thousands of high temperature records across the U.S. The Midwest was hit with triple digit temperatures and Washington, DC set a record for number of consecutive days above 95 degrees. The impact was not lost on Washington Nationals Pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg, the first-place Nationals’ best starting pitcher, had to be removed from a game on June 30th after only 3 innings due to heat sickness and extreme dehydration:

“’He was white as a sheet,” (National’s Manager Davey) Johnson said after the game, the concern still evident on his face. ‘I said, ‘That’s it.’ He wasn’t going back.’”

The game-time temperature in Atlanta, where the game was played, was 104 degrees. But the on-field temperature at Turner Field was closer to 120.

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Heat has been a major story in baseball this year and dangerous playing conditions like those that sidelined Strasburg are becoming more common. There is evidence to suggest that this problem is only going to get worse.

Heat stroke, dehydration, and other disabilities plague athletes in extremely hot conditions and can and do lead to death.

The heat, in combination with a debilitating drought, was also a problem for sports in the Southwest last summer. Friday night high school football is a tradition in Texas, but it may be under threat:

“The effects of climate change, so far, have been most noticeable in Texas, where a terrible drought has dried up football fields in small towns that used to look forward to Friday nights above all. But climate change will have a terrible effect on communities throughout the cradle of football in the Southern and plains states.

Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas. The home states of the last five college football champions? Yes. But these are also states that are projected to experience 150–180 days a year with peak temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit by the final decades of the 21st Century. That’s almost six months of the year.”

Rising temperatures can also be a problem for winter sports. In 2008, the National Hockey League played its first annual “Winter Classic” — the one hockey game each year played outdoors, usually right around New Year’s Day. In 2012, the game had to be delayed for two hours due to warm temperatures and risk of the damage to the ice. By the time the puck finally dropped, it was still 41 degrees.

Outdoor sports are facing some major changes. Athletes, organizers, and spectators better be prepared since it’s only going to worse (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F — with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F ).

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center for American Progress. He also helps run the baseball blog Off the Bench. Joseph Romm contributed to this story.