On Jan. 18 and 19, temperatures in Melbourne, where the Australian Open is currently taking place, spiked at 104 degrees. An unforgiving heat wave brought about conditions that left even the best conditioned players physically drained and dangerously flirting with heat stroke.
The reality is, when temperatures reach those levels, any type of athletic activity – especially one competed on a heat-absorbing surface like a concrete hard-court – puts players’ lives in serious jeopardy.
Bear in mind, during this two-day heat wave, games were played throughout the day, meaning many players were forced into playing with the sun’s debilitating heat pouring down onto them. These athletes were pushing their bodies to its limits and were failing them.
In normal conditions, a person’s body adjusts its body temperature through the circulation of blood throughout the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, when temperatures reach extreme levels of heat, more blood needs to be circulated, taking blood away from muscles, which in turn increases heart rate. This process is only exaggerated with humidity, which prevents sweat from evaporating and further increases body temperature.
French player Gael Monfils and Serbian player Novak Djokovic were victims of match conditions that brought into serious question the Australian Open heat policy. Despite the policy listing the temperature threshold at 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the policy did not go into effect for the Monfils-Djokovic match despite the on-court temperature reaching 69 degrees Celsius or 154 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It was tough to breathe,” Monfils said, according to Yahoo Sports. “It was some harm. I get super dizzy. I think I have a small heatstroke for 40 minutes … even with the ice towel, the water, I think my body was super warm.”
Monfils-Djokovic is just one of many examples of afternoon matches that forced players to compete on surfaces that could fry an egg. Even if on-court temperatures were not the judge – which would make little sense considering the sport is played on the court – temperatures in Melbourne did reach 40 degrees Celsius, meaning that the policy should have been triggered.
The Australian Open’s official Twitter account tweeted during the heat wave that, “The health of our players is of paramount concern, but we need to be consistent with the outside courts so some don’t get an unfair advantage.”
Monfils was one of the most visibly-affected players who had to compete in the extreme temperatures and luckily for tournament organizers, no player was seriously injured.
Still, the players who were forced to play in the hotter, midday conditions were at a disadvantage compared to players who were scheduled during the evening. Contrary to the Australian Open’s faulty explanation, players were given preferential treatment, as someone such as reigning Australian Open champion Roger Federer played all four of his matches in the evening sessions.
Organizers were undeniably tempting fate and waiting for disaster to occur instead of using their critical thinking.
Djokovic – one of the sharpest players on the tour – recognized the business aspect of ticket sales, which undoubtedly was the leading factor in organizers not postponing the afternoon matches that took place in the extreme heat.
“There are certain days where you just have to, as a tournament supervisor, recognize that you need to give players a few extra hours until [temperatures] come down,” Djokovic said, according to The Washington Post. “I understand there is a factor of tickets. But there is a limit of being fit to play and being, I think, in danger to your health.”
Sports, in the current economic environment, certainly are entertainment properties. Despite this, there comes a time when the athletes – who are the main attractions that generate the income – need to be thought of.
The Australian Open is one prime example of how heat is seemingly overlooked when it comes to athletic competition. It is easy to sympathize with the cold because in frigid temperatures it is those who are seated in the stands who feel the discomfort more. Things are a bit different though in heat, where the tables are turned and it is the athletes who suffer the most in the elements.
Too often tragedy is needed to spark change in a policy or practice, but sports leagues and tournaments should be proactive when it comes to addressing extreme temperatures. If they do not feel the heat now, they will when they are forced to face the questions when someone is gravely injured or worse.
James Justice is a broadcast and visual media major from Caldwell, N.J. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.