Australia has been traumatised in recent months by the bushfires raging throughout the country. Meanwhile the resulting damage to the atmosphere has been impacting in a very obvious and difficult way for the organisers of the Australian Open tennis tournament that begins in Melbourne tomorrow.
The images, the soundbites are already out there.
As qualifying matches have taken place as usual ahead of the main tournament, there have been dismaying scenes.
Slovenia's Dalila Jakupovic had to be helped off court when she retired from her qualifying match on Tuesday because of the air quality.
British player Liam Broady also sounded a note of outrage about having to play his first-round qualifier on the same day, adding he was "gasping for air" as he lost to Belarusian Ilya Ivashka.
Meanwhile people in Melbourne were being advised to stay indoors and keep pets inside.
BBC Sport reports that Australian Open organisers have since confirmed matches will be suspended if the level of air quality goes above 200 on the PM2.5 measure they are using.
Awful scenes in Melbourne.— ESPN Australia & NZ (@ESPNAusNZ) January 14, 2020
Dalila Jakupovic has abandoned her #AusOpen qualifying match after suffering a coughing fit while playing in thick smoke caused by the #AustralianFires. pic.twitter.com/WAJv6TzTjW
This information was made public for the first time on Thursday evening, with the players only receiving the information in an email sent out on Wednesday night - described by Broady as "a slap in the face".
The email was sent to male players by the ATP Tour and Tennis Australia, and has been seen by BBC Sport.
It concluded the "conditions are challenging, but the medical experts say they are acceptable for play".
Broady told the BBC Sport: "The more I think about the conditions we played in a few days ago, the more it boils my blood. We can't let this slide.
"The email we received yesterday from the ATP and AO was a slap in the face. Conditions were 'playable'. Were they 'healthy'?
"Citizens of Melbourne were warned to keep their animals indoors the day I played qualifying, and yet we were expected to go outside for high-intensity physical competition?
"What do we have to do to create a players' union? Where is the protection for players, both male and female? On tour we let so many things go that aren't right but at some point we have to make a stand. ALL players need protection not just a select few."
Among the myriad PR problems here is the suggestion that the likes of Jakupovic and Broady – qualifiers – were deemed as being less important than the Roger Federers of this world. That they were, effectively, the sport’s “poor bloody infantry.”
And inevitably, once the Roger Federer of this world arrived to practice ahead of the main show, the questions came in amid suggestions from some of the lesser players that the top guys were not that bothered about what they had recently gone through.
Federer has claimed, entirely reasonably, that he could not have "gone on court and told people to stop".
The 20-times Grand Slam winner told a media conference that he had spoken several times to tournament officials, telling them they needed to communicate better and added: "I don't think I can do more than I did."
Federer said a lot of players were left confused on Tuesday and Wednesday.
"So what can I do? I can go to the office, speak to them. I went to them the first day when it was bad on Tuesday, the next day on Wednesday when it was still bad," he added.
"Can I go on court and say, ‘Everybody stop play’? I can try. I don't think that's going to do much."
Taking Roger Federer to task over air pollution may be something reporters need to do at certain pre-tournament moments, but it isn’t exactly the main issue.
The Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said he was "convinced" by the reassurances given that players would be taken off court if air quality experts deemed it was unhealthy to compete in.
Tiley said the tournament decided on a threshold of 200 for suspending matches after talking to environment experts and respiratory specialists, adding some sporting events - including the Olympics - use 300 as their benchmark.
Rafael Nadal, who has just one less Grand Slam to his name than Federer, has also responded to questions on this issue.
"I received - and that doesn't mean everyone should be the same - an answer that convinces me," Nadal said.
"They told me that they have the right specialists here analysing and monitoring the air every four minutes.
"There are parameters, if it is over 200, we don't play, and if it is under 200 we normally play.
"And I was given an answer that the 'Olympic rule' is until 300 you can keep competing.
"I really cannot believe that the most important committee in the world wants bad health for the competitors.
"So that answer convinces me. I am here to play."
Wednesday’s heavy rain, thankfully, brought about an abatement of the blazes and lowered the termperatures in Melbourne, where the air was once again officially rated as “good.”
However, even some of the top-performing players are still sounding warning notes. Canadian 13th seed Denis Shapovalov said he would not play on if the air quality became hazardous.
"I don't want to risk my life, risk my health being out there playing in these conditions when I can play for the next 10-15 years," said the 20-year-old.
"I don't think anyone is happy with the way things are being dealt with."
Shapovalov, who helped Canada reach the Davis Cup final in November, said tournament officials should consider reducing men's matches to three sets if play is suspended for long periods because of poor air quality.
IOC President Thomas Bach has referenced climate change as one of the areas the organisation's new Future Host City Commissions would consider when examining the potential impact on the Olympic Games.
Bach previously claimed climate change had led to a reduced number of candidates bidding for the Winter Olympics, with ski resorts instead opting to prioritise investment in summer sports.
Meanwhile a post by the Athlete365 account has warned "unreliable snowfall and temperatures are harming winter sports", while "increasing summer heat threatens the health of athletes, sports organisers and fans".
The interface of inimical conditions, uncertain officials and potentially vulnerable athletes is not new.
Case in point. The men’s cross country race at the 1924 Paris Olympics. This, unfortunately, was run on one of the hottest days in Parisian history, with temperatures recorded at over 40C. Only 15 of the 38 starters could finish the race; many were overcome by heatstroke.
Paavo Nurmi, who was barely human, disdained the conditions to win by more than a minute.
While there was much lacking in terms of flexibility or foresight as far as that event was concerned, nobody could say the International Olympic Committee did not react strongly. That was that as far as cross country was concerned at the Olympics –it is currently knocking timorously at the door of the Winter Games.
More recently the IOC has acted with similar decisiveness in announcing that the road events at the Tokyo Games – marathons, walks and all - would be shifted to Sapporo in the wake of growing concerns over how hot it will be in the Japanese capital this summer.
That sudden decision, which frankly confounded the Tokyo organisers, came shortly after the shocking images that came out of the Doha World Championships, where the women’s marathon, despite being shifted back to a start a minute before midnight, was still run in such stifling heat and humidity that a similar proportion of runners to the 1924 cross country race dropped out.
Amid temperatures ranging between 30-33C, and with humidity at 73% at the start, 28 of the 68 entrants failed to finish. There were pictures of athletes hunched at the roadside, or laid out on stretchers.
And yet there was evidence from a very reliable source – namely an athlete who competed on the roads in the heat of Doha, Canada’s 50km race walk bronze medallist Evan Dunfee – that the catastrophe may have been less catastrophic than it at first appeared.
In a magisterial blog carried by insidethegames, Dunfee put it all out there and both argued that some of the athletes who quit the scene in Qatar were not in as parlous a state as some may have imagined, and also that the IOC, for all their apparent urgency in guarding the fortunes of the road running and walking athletes due to take part at the Tokyo Games, actually did not really care about “athlete welfare.”
Dunfee cited sporting events that were compromised by the heat in the Japanese capital last year, including the Para-triathlon test event in August, where the swim leg was cancelled due to poor water quality in Tokyo Bay and the 10km race was reduced to 5km because of extreme heat.
He also mentioned the open water swimming test event, were competitors complained of overheating, and the World Rowing Junior Championships, where several athletes were reportedly treated for heatstroke.
“There has been no talk about moving any of these events out of Tokyo despite these obvious concerns,” Dunfee wrote.
“The difference between these and events from the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Doha isn’t the safety of the athletes. It is the negative publicity conjured up by the media after the women’s marathon - and it strangely only seems to be the women’s marathon they’ve focused on.
“The IOC is scared of facing a similar backlash and is acting brashly in an effort to protect their brand.”
Dunfee went on to say: “Everyone seems to point to the 28 DNFs (did not finish) in the women’s marathon as the primary call for concern. Yes, the heat played a role in that. But there were other factors too.
“Racing at midnight was a completely new challenge, which required extensive preparation to perform at your best. Additionally the Championships were six weeks later than normal and smack dab in autumn marathon season.
“Of the 28 athletes who dropped out, 21 withdrew before halfway and 12 have raced again since. Knowing you are fit, and that there is big money to be had at other upcoming marathons, the decision to drop out becomes a lot easier.
“Other athletes have admitted to trying out new strategies on race day that resulted in stomach issues, others were already injured heading into the race, contributing to their decision to drop out.
“I overheard from the medical team that was conducting an extensive heat study, that no participating women in the marathon had core temperatures over 40 degrees, the minimum to diagnose heatstroke - for comparison mine was 40.3 and I suffered no symptoms. Most crucially, the IAAF medical department has confirmed that there were zero cases of heatstroke.”
Maybe the media overreacted in reporting the women’s marathon in Doha. But the fact remains that, if the IOC feel Tokyo is not a safe environment for road running or race walking this summer, what of the other sports, such as open water swimming or triathlon? Should they not also be shifted to Sapporo on safety grounds?
While, as Dunfee makes clear, certain athletes will always be tailoring their actions in frankly pragmatic terms, the world of sport is posited on the notion that those organising the events at which athletes – to use the word in its broadest sense – turn up to compete have a duty of care to them. Which means mitigating potentially injurious environments or climatic conditions.
Meanwhile the Melbourne organisers monitor the air quality and mobilise the superstars. Thankfully it seems as if the tipping point has already been reached in terms of the bushfires abating. But should that change, the tipping point as far as the organisers are concerned could come when established players start to cut up rough about being expected to perform in conditions that you wouldn’t wish on a dog.
Rising levels of heat – global warming, if you don’t resist that notion – are making it increasingly difficult for a number of sporting ideas to co-exist. So the idea that you spread the game around the world – sound from a moral and indeed financial point of view – might need to be downplayed in the face of evidence that some parts of the world are, or have become, injurious to athletic effort. Unless of course the hosts can afford, as Qatar have, to construct stadiums that are effectively air conditioning units with seats.
Reporting last year’s IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha’s Khalifa Stadium –which will also host FIFA World Cup matches in 2022 – required fleeces for comfort, but once one exited the stadium, within a few paces, the pulverising desert heat returned.
But few, if any, international sporting hosts have the sheer financial ability of Qatar to fashion the hosting conditions for big championships. Which is concerning, and may presage a new era of conservatism when it comes to the electing of hosts for the big FIFA and IOc jamborees in future years…