Should tennis players be taking the court in Melbourne?

Matt Woodley

16/01/2020 4:08:21 PM

Athletes ‘forced’ to compete in Australian Open qualifiers have complained of dry throats, asthma symptoms and even panic attacks related to the city’s smoke haze.

Smoke-covered Melbourne
Bushfire smoke has covered Melbourne – and the Australian Open courts – for much of the week. (Image: AAP)

Tournament organisers’ decision to push ahead with matches has led to a player backlash, with many openly complaining about conditions in press conferences and on social media.
Men’s world No. 103 Brayden Schnur felt ‘super dryness’ in his throat and likened conditions to smoking a cigarette, while fellow qualifier Dalila Jakupovic fell to her knees during a coughing fit and had to retire while leading her match.
‘I was really scared that I would collapse. That’s why I went onto the floor because I couldn’t walk anymore,’ she said following her withdrawal.
‘I don’t have asthma and never had breathing problems. I actually like heat … [but] I just couldn’t breathe anymore and I just fell on the floor.
‘After that I had a panic attack because I couldn’t get air. It was very hard, I have to say. It was one of my hardest matches.’

Dr Gill Cowen, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Sport and Exercise Medicine network, told newsGP that professional athletes are just as susceptible to bushfire smoke as the general public, and its impact depends on the individual’s current health and past medical history.
‘Typically, at low levels of air pollution the body’s usual defence mechanisms trap and clear pollutants. With elevated levels of pollutants there may be short-term accumulation of such pollutants, which may exacerbate conditions such as asthma in athletes,’ she said.
‘During exercise, pulmonary ventilation increases to meet the increased oxygen demands and as such exposure to pollutants will increase. This represents a significant increase in athletes performing vigorous activity.
‘All athletes suffering from asthma should have an updated asthma management plan and consult their medical doctor prior to exercising in smoke affected environments. Otherwise well athletes with a recent respiratory tract infection are also at increased risk of smoke-related symptoms.’
When qualifiers began earlier this week, Melbourne had the worst air quality in the world and public health authorities were advising people and even animals stay indoors and avoid exertion wherever possible.
AFL clubs cancelled preseason training sessions or moved them indoors, horse racing meets were called off, and Olympic rowers fled to Tasmania to avoid the ‘hazardous’ air conditions.
Cricket matches and outdoor festivals have also been abandoned elsewhere due to air quality this bushfire season, and Dr Cowen said it is important for athletes and teams to regularly monitor Air Quality Index (AQI) levels.
‘Decisions regarding play should be made taking into account [the athlete’s] current and past medical information,’ she said.
‘They should also consider that consecutive days of polluted air exposure may have cumulative effects.’
Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) guidelines released last month recommend that outdoor training be moved indoors and exposure minimised once AQI levels pass 150, while people with asthma should not compete or train outdoors once the AQI reaches 100.
The 24-hour AQI average in Melbourne was 255 on Monday, before dropping slightly to 212 on Tuesday and 161 on Wednesday.
Dr Kerry Hancock, Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Respiratory Medicine network, told newsGP it is not healthy for anybody to be undertaking outdoor physical activity in those conditions.
‘From a respiratory medicine perspective, we have been advising people to not exercise when the quality is poor and I really can’t imagine that that would be any different for elite athletes, either,’ she said.
‘Those who have asthma are going to be more at risk of increased airway irritation, but what we have seen is that people who don’t have asthma are also getting airway irritation … everyone potentially is at risk.
‘If it was my son or daughter playing in the Australian Open, I certainly wouldn’t be happy for them to be exposing themselves to that risk at all.’ Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton has called on Tennis Australia (TA) to create an air quality policy to better protect players, but officials said the unprecedented nature of the crisis meant there had not been enough time.
According to TA Chief Executive Craig Tiley, organisers will continue to consult air monitoring systems and scientific, environmental and meteorological experts about whether it is safe for matches to continue. But the organisation has not revealed the exact thresholds that would lead to a stop in play.
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