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Climate Change Threatens Future Of Sports


Week 1 of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne is almost in the books. There have already been surprises, like Coco Gauff knocking out defending champ Naomi Osaka in the third round. And there have been climate challenges, too - bad air quality because of the wildfires burning across southeastern Australia, intense rainstorms, even a blanket of red dust from a sandstorm. So what does an increasingly warm planet and the unpredictable weather that comes with it mean for tennis and other outdoor Sports? Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote recently about how climate change is affecting sports, and he's with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C., to talk more about it. Dave Zirin, welcome back. Thanks for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here.

MARTIN: So in your piece, you describe the extreme weather conditions that we've seen at the Open as the tip of an iceberg - of a melting iceberg, in fact. What did you mean by that?

ZIRIN: Well, I meant that this is an issue that sports needs to reckon with, and so far, it has not reckoned with it whatsoever. This is a very evocative example because it's a Grand Slam event, and people are talking about it. But this has been happening for years in sports on a host of smaller and other fronts like less days to play hockey in Canada because the rinks aren't solid ice. I mean, there are melting rinks in Canada.

Other instances like cardiovascular sports, intense cardiovascular sports like cycling and like marathoning have been cut short because of heat. Outdoor skiing is something that has had to deal with the idea of having to store snow on heavy snow days because they can't be guaranteed snow throughout the year. And that in and of itself leaves a tremendous carbon footprint. So on a host of different fronts, we're in a situation where climate change and sports are colliding.

MARTIN: You know, sometimes the international sports entities have dealt with health challenges like the Zika virus during the Summer Olympics in Brazil. I mean, there was open discussion about that. But you've said that the sports world has really avoided having a conversation about climate change. Why do you think that is?

ZIRIN: Well, because it puts the question of whether or not we should even be playing these sports right now under the microscope like in the context of a warming planet. Are there some sports that we should possibly do away with? I mean, when we're in a situation where it's possible that as many as half of all golf courses could be threatened by rising waters by the end of this century, it raises the question about, should we be building more golf courses, which we are doing?

MARTIN: Is that true? Is that true, by the way?

ZIRIN: Yeah, according to - Golf Digest reported on this, that out of 2,090 - out of 1,000 - roughly out of 1,200 outdoor courses that they looked at, half of them are going to be affected by rising waters.

MARTIN: So are sports organisations like FIFA in soccer or the NFL, the National Football League, or the International Olympic Committee, are they built for talking about big issues like this?

ZIRIN: That's a great question. They're definitely built for starting conversations, which is what we need to do. I mean, these aren't environmental emergency organizations that can step up and do the kind of work that we need to help a warming planet. But they are organizations that can start discussions, and these discussions are certainly desperately needed at this point. You're going to see it this summer in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympics, where they're expecting rising heat, and at the next World Cup, which is going to be held in Qatar, where it's going to be extremely hot. And that's why they moved it to the fall instead of doing it over the summer, as they traditionally do, precisely because of the rising heat.

And so in these contexts, there can be discussions that can be had about how sports should operate. How can sports be more green? How can sports not leave such an intense carbon footprint? I think the Australian Open and what's been happening there opens the way up for all these discussions.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, who do you think should take the lead here? I mean, should it be these organizations that are supposed to look out for the interests of the players as well as the integrity of the sport? Do you think it's like the celebrity athletes? This is one of the subjects of your career is athletic activism and how that affects the athletes' lives and careers. I mean, this is something you've written about extensively for many years now. I mean, what do you think?

ZIRIN: I think we're going to need the top athletes in their sports speaking out and speaking out on behalf of all players and treating it like a workplace safety issue. I think if they're able to do that, it provides an opening for speaking about the environmental impact and talking about the impact on the athletes themselves. I do not think we can trust the leagues, the higher-ups in the leagues, which are basically profit machines, from actually trying to say, well, maybe we can't make as much money but also leave less of a global footprint. It's going to take the athletes to step up and make this thing happen.

MARTIN: That's Dave Zirin. He's a sportswriter for The Nation. That's the progressive magazine. He recently wrote about climate change and its impact on sports. Dave Zirin, thank you so much for talking to us.

ZIRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.