In a country of weather extremes, could climate change defeat sports-mad Australians?

By Brittany Patterson | 02/26/2015 08:00 AM EST

At 12 years old, Alex Rance began playing Australian rules football. Six years later, he was drafted to the Richmond Tigers, a professional team based in Melbourne. Outdoor sports has been Rance’s life, and, naturally, he knew weather has played a role, but it wasn’t until he came home from practice one day and began complaining about the extreme heat and extreme rains that his sister set him straight.

At 12 years old, Alex Rance began playing Australian rules football, also known as AFL or "footy" as the Aussies like to call it. It’s a full-contact game with 18 players on the field who can position themselves anywhere. To score points, they run or kick a football through the four goal posts at either end of the pitch. Basically, it’s a mix between soccer and football, and it’s one of the most popular sports in the country.

Six years after he first stepped onto a field, Rance was drafted to the Richmond Tigers, a professional team based in Melbourne. Since then, he’s played more than 100 games and last year was selected for the All Australian Team.

Outdoor sports has been his life, and, naturally, he knew weather has played a role, but it wasn’t until he came home from practice one day and began complaining about the extreme heat and extreme rains that his sister set him straight.


Alianne Rance, an environmental doctoral student at the Centre for Urban Research at RMIT University in Melbourne, stopped Alex and asked what he thought was causing the weather variability.

"I guess it’s pretty common for everyone, not just athletes, to say ‘Wow, it’s raining a lot lately,’ or ‘Wow, it’s been really hot lately,’ but then that’s where it stops in their brains," he said in an email. "I was lucky enough that when I said those things, or came home and was sizzled from training and complaining about it, my sister Ali would pick up on it and ask me why I thought it was happening."

Rance said hotter, longer summers have forced the team to adapt training schedules, increasing the time the players have for recovery and bringing in additional staff to hand out water and ice-cooled towels and to relieve heat-induced muscle cramps. His team even had to resurface and raise the level of its training facility because of increased flooding from extreme rain.

"When we play in winter there has been a lot more games where the rain is ridiculously heavy, forcing us to wear gloves which we wouldn’t normally use, wearing longer cleats so we don’t slip over as much and changing out playing kits [uniforms] at each break because they get heavy with water," he said. "All in all I have noticed that the extreme events have gotten more frequent over my career."

Among the developed nations in the world, Australia is projected to be hardest hit by climate change.

In a recent report, the national science agency CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said Australians should expect temperatures to rise by about 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2090. Rainfall has declined since 1970, extreme heat events are slated to increase in both severity and quantity, and sea level and ocean acidification are expected to continue.

Hard problems to tackle

"Some sports are climate-dependent and some are not, but with a lot less rainfall and higher temperatures, your outdoor ones are going to suffer," said Greg Dingle, a lecturer for sport management in the Department of Marketing and Management at La Trobe Business School in Australia.

For Australia, that means swimming, AFL, rugby, cricket, tennis and bushwalking to name a few.

Australian rules football
The Geelong Cats take on the Melbourne Demons in a game of “footy.” | Photo by Tim Moreillon, courtesy of Flickr.

Sports carries a special place in the cultural heart of Australia. Economically, it doesn’t fare too badly either, contributing more than $12.5 billion to the Australian economy and providing jobs for 75,000 people. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that more than 7.5 million Australians attend at least one sporting event a year.

"I would say that unless you understand sport in Australia, you don’t understand Australia," Dingle said. "If you want to have one of those water cooler conversations Monday morning, you have to have a football team."

In its report released last month titled "Sport and Climate Impacts: How much heat can sport handle?" the Climate Institute, an independent, nonpartisan research think tank, wrote "sport can’t go on as it has" and especially local sports are and will continue to struggle with adapting to climate change.

Extreme heat especially jeopardizes summer sports.

According to a report released last week quantifying the effects of climate change and extreme heat events by the Climate Council, the annual number of record hot days across Australia has doubled since 1960.

Australian Open gets ‘hot as hell’

Last year in January, the world watched in horror as players, ball boys and spectators alike began dropping like heat-exhausted flies at the Australian Open. As temperatures soared above 105 F for multiple days, sneakers and water bottles melted on the clay court in Melbourne. Croatian player Ivan Dodig told reporters he feared he "might die."

Tennis is one of the most popular sports in Australia because of its British colonial past. Historically, most courts in the country are made of grass or clay (both of which require watering), but during the historic "Millennium Drought" from the mid-1990s through 2009, as clubs began to be unable to water the courts, they began asking their local governments to switch them to hard courts, Dingle said. It’s not a cheap switch. In 2007, Tennis Victoria estimated it would cost $43 million to replace 1,700 red clay tennis courts.

Hard courts can raise the ambient temperature between 10 to 20 F, which contributed to the challenging conditions at the 2014 Australian Open.

Australian Open
The Australian Open in January 2014. Elite athletes can handle temperatures over 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (sort of). | Photo courtesy of Tourism Victoria.

"It was really nasty," said Will Steffen, a climate change researcher at the Australian National University in Canberra.

The effects of climate change can have major effects on humans. For example, if your core body temperature rises much above 98.6 F, it becomes a serious issue to your health, Steffen said.

"Elite sport people can do pretty well," he said, but extreme heat can have dangerous health effects for amateur sport participants. "A standard cricket match, for example, can go on for several days, six to eight hours per day. Players are out in an open field, in the heat."

Heat and drought can dry out a local field quickly and has led to an increase in broken bones in kids who play rugby, he said. The adaptive solution is to either cancel the season or move it to a place that can water its field.

Melbourne, where the competition is scheduled to be held every January for the next decade and a half, is expected to see average temperatures increase across all seasons, according to the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology report. By 2030, summer temperatures are likely to be 1.08 F warmer than the average for 1986-2005, and depending on the emissions scenario, 2.7 to 6.1 F warmer by 2090.

Since the 2014 tournament, Australian Open officials have implemented a new heat policies and medical guidelines. That venue also has a retractable roof, a good adaptive mechanism but not something Dingle says most outdoor courts can afford.

"If you’re prepared to spend enough money, you can deal with almost anything," he said. "There will come a point for Australia where adapting to its effects won’t be enough."

Drought vs. the AFL — a tough matchup

"There’s a saying that Australia is a country of droughts and flooding rains, so we’re used to extremes," Dingle said. "But this was outside of normal experience. We had never seen anything like it."

During the Millennial Drought, Australia experienced its longest dry spell in more than 100 years. Little rain meant that the ground dried out, crops failed and water restrictions were put in place.

Sports in the country were not immune. Swimming pools came under government water efficiency mandates, and playing grounds and courts began drying out. In 2007, three-quarters of rural sporting leagues in Victoria delayed or cut short their seasons because their fields were unusable.

In the midst of the very worst of the drought, the manager of Australia’s biggest sport, AFL, took action. Aware that its grass-roots teams were being badly affected, in 2006 the governing body launched a program called AFL Green.

Andrew Demetriou, at the time the CEO of the league, wrote that AFL was "leading the way."

"We’ve got a very large population where we can influence people," he said. "We encourage all football fans to get on board and support their club to help make a difference."

AFL quantified its carbon footprint and purchased carbon offsets for 120,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Together with the professional soccer and rugby leagues, the sport commissioned a study to identify characteristics of what a high-quality synthetic grass could look like and then asked three synthetic grass supplies in Australia to create prototypes.

Green messaging

According to its 2006 annual report, the organization even designated a week of the season as the AFL Green round, where environmental messaging went into overdrive.

"It’s a good illustration to the extent of which a sporting industry can go to communicate climate change," Dingle said. "You can argue that some of it is greenwashing, but sport has a role to play in the choices we have to make to circumvent dangerous climate change."

Around the time that the droughts broke, AFL scaled back the AFL Green program.

"Make with that what you will," Dingle added.

AFL drew nearly 7 million fans in 2014 and reported a record-breaking $446 million in revenue in 2013. The dollar rules in professional sports, and Dingle said the next step for Australia is to convince the large sports and stadiums that the risks of climate change outweigh doing nothing.

"Why do so many companies want to sponsor sport? Because it has so many people’s attention," Dingle said. "Compared to the greenhouse gas emissions of oil or our big coal industry, the environmental impact of sport is small, but it still exists. There are definitely impacts, but the greatest vulnerability is at the community level."

Rance, the professional AFL player, said that because sport is such a large part of Australian culture, unless professional-level sports lead the conversation, it’s hard to see the status quo changing.

"I feel sorry for local-level athletes who don’t have the budget and facilities to be able to cope with climate change as well as professional athletes do."