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Elite sport prepares for bushfire smoke with new guidelines

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) has issued new guidelines for elite sport to minimise the health risk of smoke haze on athletes, as the country braces for a severe bushfire season due to the El Niño weather system.

Smoke haze poses a higher risk for elite athletes

According to the AIS, elite athletes face higher health risks from smoke than the wider population because they are likely to spend more time exercising outdoors, and there is a higher prevalence of asthma among them. Smoke inhalation has been found in some cases to cause lung injury, impaired blood flow and eye, nose and throat irritation.

Dr David Hughes, chief medical officer at the AIS, said that recreational athletes can often choose whether to exercise or not depending on how comfortable they are feeling, while that is not always the case in high performance sport where there might be an expectation to train and compete hard.

The AIS guidelines set out the levels of smoke pollution that are acceptable before they pose a risk to athletes’ health. They also recommend using hand-held devices to give instant readings of the air quality at the venues where athletes train and compete.

Sports revise their policies ahead of the summer

Individual sports have also revisited their policies ahead of the coming summer, which is expected to be a fierce bushfire season due to the El Niño weather system. The Australasian Fire Authorities Council has issued a stark outlook for spring across much of eastern Australia, warning of an increased risk of bushfires.

Elite sport prepares for bushfire smoke with new guidelines

Tennis Australia is currently updating the smoke policy for the 2024 Australian Open, after the event was disrupted by smoke haze in 2020. The A-Leagues have reviewed their policies before the start of the season, and Cricket Australia (CA) has refined community guidelines that factor in air quality, signs of distress suffered by players and officials, and visibility.

CA does not publish its policy for elite cricket but confirmed that it is largely consistent with the community guidelines. A spokesperson said that the guidelines put a strong emphasis on player welfare and urge clubs to take a conservative approach when deciding if it is safe to play or train in bushfire smoke or other hazardous conditions.

Smoke haze affected several sporting events in 2019-20

The new guidelines from the AIS and the sports bodies build on the efforts in the Black Summer of 2019-20, when the AIS rushed to respond to a need from sports for advice amid a blanket of haze in much of eastern Australia.

Several sporting events across football, cricket and tennis were abandoned, postponed and relocated due to the smoke haze. Some of the notable incidents include:

  • A Big Bash League match between Sydney Thunder and Adelaide Strikers at Manuka Oval in Canberra was abandoned after 11 overs due to poor visibility and air quality.
  • The Australian Open qualifying rounds were delayed and some players suffered breathing difficulties and chest pains due to the smoke haze in Melbourne.
  • A Women’s National Cricket League match between ACT Meteors and NSW Breakers in Canberra was called off after 25 overs due to hazardous air quality.
  • A W-League match between Canberra United and Adelaide United in Canberra was postponed due to the smoke haze.

Dr Hughes said that he remembered sitting in a hotel in Sydney in a conference when the bushfires happened and suddenly there were calls coming in from all over Australia with people wanting guidance.

He said that the new guidelines are based on the latest scientific evidence and aim to provide clear and consistent advice for elite sport in the event of another bushfire season.

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