From bad refs to brain-eating amoebas: How climate change is reshaping warm-weather sports

Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and more extreme weather are affecting how we play outdoor sports at all levels, from the weekend warriors to the pros.

Hear more from Dave Levitan about this story:

This is just a smattering of the ways the changing climate is affecting the world of sports. Some are obvious, such as the threat extreme heat poses to both the performance and safety of athletes; others are more subtle, like drought-induced dust hindering distance runners’ training. But many are happening now, changing the way sports are played, altering the timing of events and playing seasons and affecting athletes’ achievement and well-being. The shifts are happening at all levels of athletics — from recreational leagues and weekend warriors to the pros.

Illustrated map of Japan with a starting point in Tokyo and an endpoint in Sapporo

Timing — and location — is everything

Moving events around may start to get more common as temperatures warm, but in many cases ensuring good conditions will also mean shifting their timing. Take cricket, the world’s second-most-watched sport, which is played in some of the hottest and stormiest places. It is wildly popular in India, Pakistan, various islands in the Caribbean and Australia. Some of the latter country’s most iconic matches traditionally take place in the southern hemisphere’s summer, with increasingly dangerous results — in part because of heat, and in part because these competitions can take up to five days to complete.

An animated illustrated cricket bat with a thermometer in the center and the temperature is rising

Even outside of illogical desert countries, though, more traditional World Cup host cities are seeing the conditions for high-level soccer deteriorate as temperatures rise. For example, Paris first hosted the tournament in its third-ever iteration in 1938, and it hosted again 60 years later. The city’s temperature has gone up around two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) over the 1951-1980 average, well above the global average rise.


And if it is getting too hot for elite, world-class athletes to play the sport, imagine what it is doing to all the amateurs and kids out there.

“There are billions of children who play soccer with the hopes of making the World Cup,” Murfree, of Texas A&M, told Grid. “Their opportunity is diminishing because of the environment.”

Altering how games are played

Very few sports are immune to the ways the changing climate can impact gameplay. From soaring baseballs to stickier artificial turf to flooded pitches and stadiums, a warming climate is taking the simple pleasure of the sports you grew up playing and watching and tweaking them. And some tweaks are more surprising than others.


submerged golf cart


Athlete performance and safety

Even if the pitch is dry, the stadium unflooded and the equipment available — the athletes themselves can’t ignore the threat, either.

When Amy Steel walked into an arena six years ago for a preseason netball match, she was already wondering why her team was playing at all.

“It just felt like you were going into either a Bikram yoga or like a steam room or something,” she told Grid. “It was just so stinking hot in there.”

Steel was an elite, international-level netball player, a sport that resembles basketball without the backboard and is the most popular women’s sport in Australia. Speaking via Zoom from Perth, where she lives, Steel said her team had spent part of this particular day outside already, signing autographs and taking photographs as temperatures soared to 104 degrees F, before heading into an arena where the air conditioning was not working. The game went ahead anyway; it wasn’t until afterward that things went south.

“By the time I got myself into the ice bath, that’s when things started to feel really like something wasn’t right,” Steel said. “I could remember actually asking my teammates, ‘Is it cold? Or is it hot in here? Like, what’s the temperature of this?’ Because I just couldn’t compute.”

She made it through the ice bath and a shower, and out into the parking lot — and then she collapsed. That’s all she remembers until some time later, when doctors explained that she had heat stroke and almost died. And the ordeal did not stop there. In fact, that preseason game, at age 27, was the last netball game she ever played.

Illustration of a runner with fire inside and on their heals

Heat-related illness is the most obvious and visible of climate change’s safety-related impacts on athletes. A warmer world means more heat waves and higher humidity, and athletes outside — or inside without proper air conditioning — running around for hours at a time is getting harder and more dangerous.

That’s true even for sports that aren’t considered endurance events, or where running or other cardiovascular exercise is a central component. “Every pitch just takes that much more out of you” in high temperatures, said Brent Suter, a pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers and an environmental activist also affiliated with EcoAthletes, before a late-May game against the Chicago Cubs. “Recovery in between innings is that much more imperative. Recovery after games — sometimes you just go and sit in the cold tub for 10 minutes and just try to get your body back to equilibrium,” he said. “It can get gnarly out there.”


The athletes are struggling to perform, the spectators are sweating it out in the stands — and the umpires or referees are likely adding insult to injury. “In addition to all those physical, physiological and pathophysiological consequences, there are also cognitive and psychological [effects] — and they really shouldn’t be regarded separately because they feed into each other,” Tipton said.

Animated illustration of a sweating referee

But climate change isn’t just a problem for participants in professional sports. “Climate and its associated hazards are already the leading cause of injury among youth athletes, already the leading cause of death among youth athletes in the U.S. and other parts of the world,” Orr, of Loughborough University, told Grid. “And it’s not getting anywhere near the level of attention it should be receiving.”

“If you stop all the heat leaving the body by wearing protective clothing, and you ask somebody to exercise moderately, they’ve got an estimated survival time of around 20 minutes,” Tipton told Grid, mentioning sports like fencing where athletes are sometimes covered nearly head to toe.

“If you’re at the back of a 20-person pack, yeah, you’re taking [in] a lot of dust that you wouldn’t have had it not been a drought,” said Orr, who is working on a book about climate change’s impacts on sports, adding that there has been an increase in the incidence of illnesses such as bronchitis in those regions. “If those athletes can’t compete and train the way they want to compete and train because it’s too dusty and it’s too hot? That’s a problem for the pipeline, and that’s a problem for the whole country’s sense of what they’re good at.”

Illustration of a brain-eating amoeba in the brain

“It’s going on a walk, it’s hiking, fishing, rock climbing, a lot of recreation and leisure, all of these things that have this innate connection to the environment in which they’re being held,” said Murfree, of Texas A&M. “What does that mean for human beings as a species, to be able to continue to do these things and provide for our health and well-being if we can’t breathe the air outside?”

More gameplay weirdness, cancellations and shifting calendars, and safety issues are bound to crop up across the world of sports, whether it’s the increased injury risk of playing cricket on a hard, drought-baked pitch in India or cycling in a race on literally melting tarmac through southern Spain. And experts say it’s time to have the hard discussions about what comes next.

“What is this culturally going to feel like when we lose this? Because that’s what we’re facing,” Orr said. For example, she said, “We are facing no football in the South until late October, because that’s when hurricane season is going to let it happen. I don’t think Louisiana wants to have that conversation yet. I don’t think Texas wants to have that conversation yet. But if we want to keep athletes healthy, we have to.”

Start your day with the biggest stories and exclusive reporting from The Messenger Morning, our weekday newsletter.
By signing up, you agree to our privacy policy and terms of use.
Sign Up.