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The Loop

The Australian Open should be cancelled

January 20, 2020

First, watch this video of what happened to Dalila Jakupovic, a professional athlete in excellent physical condition, when she was potentially just a few points away from winning an Australian Open qualifying match a week ago in Melbourne:

Her post-match quote says it all:

"I wasn't able to make more than three shots running left and right because I was already getting an asthma attack. I don't have asthma normally."

The primary reason for her coughing fit and the asthma-like attack, as most will know, is the smoke from the bushfires that are raging across Australia, burning thousands of homes, killing hundreds of thousands and maybe even millions of animals, and contaminating the air Australians breathe. When I was in Melbourne for the Presidents Cup in December, the smoke wasn't noticeable, but at a stopover in Sydney on the way home a light fog permeated the air, and I heard from locals that just existing outside in the nation's capital exposed their lungs to the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes or more per day.

Now the heavy smoke has reached Melbourne, and what happened to Jakupovic is no surprise—tennis is a sport that demands intense cardiovascular output, and coupled with the extreme heat of Australia in the summertime, the poisoned air can wreak havoc on exhausted players who need clean oxygen. Jakupovic wasn't alone—Bernard Tomic needed help to breathe ("No air is going in. I'm getting tired so easy"), Maria Sharapova had an exhibition canceled, Dustin Brown used an inhaler for the first time in his life, Nicolas Mahut wore a medical mask, and other qualifying matches were delayed.

Meanwhile, the response from tournament organizers has been woefully inadequate, and seems to entail playing at all costs. Per the Los Angeles Times:

Tournament director Craig Tiley said competition will start Monday as planned. “We do have three indoor arenas in which we can compete. It may look different but the tournament will happen,” he said. “We are speculating if that would happen, but if we had to work it out we would.”

First off, the idea of playing an entire grand slam tournament on a handful of indoor courts is absurd on its face, but it's made even worse by the fact that smoke can still get indoors by virtue of air conditioning and venting systems. Also, where are the fans that are stuck outside supposed to go? Most of them, obviously, will be in far worse health than the elite athletes they've come to watch. Authorities in Melbourne have urged citizens to stay indoors due to "hazardous" conditions, and Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal confronted officials when they heard that. Officials assured them that quality tests were being done routinely, but it's far from clear that the systems they're using are adequate. Federer and Nadal now say they're confident that player safety is being taken into account, but they shouldn't be.

The thing is, there's too much of a financial incentive to keep playing this tournament. This is an event where the prize money alone will total $71 million in 2020—now imagine how much money is at stake overall, and how deep the ties must be with various corporate sponsors, and how much they'd stand to lose if suddenly there were no players or fans. Tennis Australia, the governing body, made nearly $400 million AU in revenue the last fiscal year (about $256 million), and in 2018, the cost of running the Australian Open was more than half of that total. The prospect of incurring all that expense with none of the payoff presents, for them, a very ugly financial reality—particularly considering their thin profit margins, which were just $10 million AU in 2018-19. Some of the lost cost would undoubtedly be recouped, but some would not, and for an organization whose revenue growth last fiscal year was overwhelmingly a result of corporate sponsorships (over 50 percent), media rights, and ticket sales, canceling the tournament must be unthinkable.

Literally every one of those elements could take a hit. If you were a corporate executive, would you want to spend a big chunk of your marketing budget on a major event that got canceled once, and could be again? If you were a media executive, wouldn't you want a lower price for TV rights when climate change threatened to cancel the event each year? If you're a fan, do you want to buy an advanced ticket package when you might be braving extreme heat and smoke?

Without getting overly political about the inhumane choices people can make when money's involved, it's already clear that safety is a secondary concern. In terms of revenue, the Australian Open is everything to Tennis Australia, and I get the feeling that they'd consider playing even if the actual courts were on fire. Worse, they have total discretion over the decision, so there's no oversight and almost no accountability—there are no "adults in the room," divorced from the potential fiscal losses to the governing body, who can make an independent decision or even influence the decision.

The players understand this, at least intuitively. Some, like Denis Shapovalov and Liam Broady have already lashed out at the organizers.

"You get warnings from the news telling people to stay inside, that it's not good to be outside, breathing this stuff in," said Shapovalov, highlighting the double standard. "And then you get an email from the tournament saying it's playable and you guys have to go out there and put your life in jeopardy, put your health in jeopardy."

By now, the early returns from what the Washington Post called "guinea pigs" should have made it clear that it's unacceptably dangerous for players to compete in these conditions, and the tournament should have been canceled, moved, or at least delayed. Instead, organizers are rolling the dice, and it's easy to guess why. There's a chance that rain or shifting wind patterns could reverse the situation, and that the smoke could dissipate and the fires die out. But it's a small chance, and one that's not worth taking. My prediction is that we're in for an utter PR disaster, and potentially a human one too, after players and fans are exposed to contaminated air...all because it would be too costly to employ the common sense we call precaution.