It is a dire analogy, but the smog makes New Delhi seem like the post-apocalyptic wasteland in The Matrix. The sky is scorched, the sun is imprisoned behind thick pockets of dirty gas, and the world’s a dark and gloomy place. In the movie, humans deliberately block the sun in the war against machines, so as to cut their power source. In the national capital these days, the sun indeed does seem blocked – you can stare straight at it through the haze without blinking. The problem is severe.
Unfortunately, cricket has severely been affected by it all. The Ranji Trophy 2016-17 clash between Bengal and Gujarat at the Feroze Shah Kotla stadium was called off, two days into the fixture, with poor air quality denying the chance for even the toss to take place. It was the same at the Karnail Singh Stadium, with the match between Hyderabad and Tripura too being called off. The Board of Control for Cricket in India took the sensible, if unprecedented, decision to abandon both matches. Conditions were simply too dangerous for play.
The Ranji Trophy usually promises a stress-free time for all spectators, but this was perhaps the most uncomfortable some of us have been at a match. We didn’t do much except sit in our seats and hope for play, but those of us coming from outside Delhi, particularly, developed coughing and wheezing, eye irritations, and a general sense of ill-being. This is without any physical exertion, mind you. You can imagine what it would have been like for the players had play actually gone ahead.
To know why, you’ve to look at the details. Air quality is measured in the levels of particulate matter – PM 10 and PM 2.5 – in the air. PM 10 are particulate matters less than 10 micrometres, while PM 2.5 are those less than 2.5 micrometres. For perspective, a human hair is generally 100 micrometres.
The safe limits for PM 10 and PM 2.5 are 100 µg/m3 and 60 µg/m3 respectively. The United States Environmental Protection Agency considers any reading above 200 µg/m3 of PM 2.5 “very unhealthy”. In Delhi on Monday (November 7), according to the System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), the figures were 876 µg/m3 of PM 10 and 680 µg/m3 of PM 2.5.
To put it simply, it’s a gas chamber here.
These are hideous conditions for any living being that has a respiratory function, let alone an athlete who, typically, takes in a lot more oxygen than the average human during activities that demand physical exertion. The number of health issues at risk is disconcerting.
“It affects performance because you’re not getting the desired intake of oxygen, obviously,” says John Gloster, the former Indian team physio. “And because it’s an inflammatory irritant, it’s going to narrow the airway, so you’re going to struggle to breathe in more oxygen, the volume is reduced. Therefore you’ve to rely on a dilator to unconstrict the airways to breathe properly. That’s the performance aspect of it.
“Then, more importantly, there’s the health issue. I’ve been looking at the particles per million, the levels, and it is beyond dangerous. Subjecting an athlete to high levels of pollution for a long period of time – and they are out there for eight hours a day – your chances of picking up respiratory infections, eye infections and so on are much, much higher.”
The plight of those in some of the other sports is worse. In the recent Indian Super League football clash between Delhi Dynamos and Kerala Blasters in New Delhi, the respective team coaches, Gianluca Zambrotta and Steve Coppell, spoke of their frustrations after practice sessions were restricted to within the confines of their hotels. Perhaps they are not fully aware of the risks. The authorities did well to issue safety measures, for whatever it’s worth.
“We have made face masks mandatory for all the footballers and the coaching staff in order to prevent any kind of illness,” Prashant Agarwal, the Delhi Dynamos president, was quoted as saying by The Hindustan Times. “We have also installed air filters in the team hotels and we hope the players will not face any problem when they take the field.”
The conditions are understood to be particularly hard to get used to for foreigners, many of whom are used to more pristine, clean air. Michael Chopra, the former Newcastle United striker currently with Kerala, said: “I have been quite unwell for the last couple of days and the pollution is just making it worse.”
“You can see the smog. There were no breathing difficulties because we didn’t play. But after the warm-up, we all started feeling a little burning sensation in our eyes. This was unheard of, it’s the first time. We don’t know what effects this will have on the players health-wise. That’s the reason we forced our management to bring us masks. At least we can feel a little safer. It’s surprising and new to us. We don’t know how to react.”
In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government was on an overdrive to reduce pollution around the capital city. They restricted car usage, ordered the shutting down of factories, and temporarily brought construction to halt. Despite that, it was considered the most polluted games ever. According to The Telegraph, researchers found that for four-fifths of the time, athletes were exposed to levels of coarse particulate matter higher than what was deemed safe by the World Health Organization. There is no concrete evidence of how it affected the performance of athletes, but it’s understood that the situation was less than ideal.
Soumya Rout is currently a physio and trainer with the Sports Authority of Gujarat, and has formerly worked with the Odisha Ranji team, and the India Under-19 and Under-16 football sides. Having been in Delhi when the match was called off, he explained what could happen with prolonged exposure to smog; the consequences are alarming. “Athletes, cricketers, footballers, runners, cyclists – they all tend to breathe in more air compared to normal individuals,” he said. “If they play in such conditions, when they breathe this smog, it can affect their heart. These particles are very small, and they settle in the bloodstream. We have a protein in our body which is responsible for diluting the impurities. But due to the particular nature of smog, the protein isn’t produced adequately, and clots are formed. That will lead to cardiac arrest.
“Moreover, these particles can settle in the lungs as well – it can be compared to a smoker who goes through 20 to 30 packets of cigarettes every day. We can’t allow people, and athletes especially, to be exposed to this air too much, it can cause further problems in the longer run. It’s as such difficult for a normal individual to breathe in Delhi at the moment. Imagine an athlete playing a match in such conditions, such circumstances. How long can a fast bowler keeping running in? How many times can a batsman take singles? They won’t get enough oxygen to breathe, the muscles won’t get sufficient amount to function.”
At the Feroze Shah Kotla, on the first morning, the Bengal and Gujarat teams stepped out as usual for a few warm-up drills. It was evident play wouldn’t start on time, the haze making visibility an issue. However, the players soon found themselves struggling with itchy eyes. Before long, they had rushed back to the safety of their dressing rooms. The captains, Manoj Tiwary and Parthiv Patel, had later attempted the toss, but so severe was the smog that when given the option by the match referee, both captains decided against the toss.
At the end of the day, the Bengal team walked to the team bus, with each player wearing breathing masks in protection. Tiwary revealed he had specifically instructed his management to arrange for them, the masks providing at least some degree of safety.
“Today when we went out, our eyes were burning,” said Tiwary. “And you can see the smog. There were no breathing difficulties because we didn’t play. But after the warm-up, we all started feeling a little burning sensation in our eyes. This was unheard of, it’s the first time. We tend to get doubts in our minds as well. We don’t know what effects this will have on the players health-wise. That’s the reason we forced our management to bring us these masks. At least we can feel a little safer with this. It’s surprising and new to us. We don’t know how to react.
“We are all responsible for this, in a way. We had to control ourselves from bursting crackers and all during Diwali, but we wanted to enjoy. We didn’t take care.”
The next day, they attempted to warm up in the morning again, but were much quicker to abandon the plan. Players rarely stepped out thereafter, and the cancellation of the match would have been welcomed with relief from both sets of players. Gloster pointed to poor scheduling in having the match in the city in the first place. “We know that scheduling matches in Delhi at this time of the year, especially during Diwali, is an issue. I would say it’s a scheduling issue, they should have looked at that beforehand,” he said. “It’s not as if this is the first time Delhi’s having pollution problems during Diwali. You’ve got to be smarter about your scheduling. It’s unfair on the players otherwise.
“You’ve got a whole lot of parameters to consider, but obviously the most important is health, that’s paramount. I’d have no problems telling my players, if they were in that situation, not to go out and play. And I’m betting a majority of the medical support staff would say the same.”
The Delhi half-marathon 2016 is scheduled for November 20. This can be a beautiful city, especially south Delhi with its long, winding roads, all lined with arching trees. And it always seem like there are pieces of history lying around in neglect, so rich is the heritage. It should ideally have made for a lovely 21-plus kilometres-run. Unfortunately, the existing crisis means there is the very real possibility that the event will be postponed.
For now, the city simply is not in a position to indulge sport.