A significant link between air quality and professional sports has pushed Senegal to install air cleaning and monitoring devices in its stadiums, four years before it hosts the 2026 Youth Olympic Games in Dakar, Africa’s first Olympic event.
A growing body of research shows that oxygen quality is fundamental to athlete performance and longevity, spectator health, and general sporting mood. In June, World Athletics through its Every Breath Counts campaign, called for better air quality in sports across the globe.
And when the Senegalese government through its environment ministry and Athletics Senegal this month hosted various sporting and environmental organizations in Dakar, discussions centered on how failure to clean the air in sports stadiums has negatively affected sportsmen and women.
“The practice of sports is important for health and wellbeing and it is therefore essential that this is done in a safe environment,” Cheikh Fofana, deputy director of the environment and classified establishments in Senegal’s environment ministry said at the forum.
Due to large crowds of fans, sports events generally increase air pollution in a location through traffic and fan activities like smoking. Some common air pollutants in stadiums are dust, ash, soot, pollen, metallic particles, cement particles, and ethanol while dangerous gases are carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone. Exposure to emissions causes oxidative stress and inflammation in the cardiovascular system of players in the long term.
Senegal joins 6,000 cities across 117 countries around the world that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates are investing in monitoring air quality at sporting events. Athletes, due to their higher rate of breathing during exercise and increased airflow velocity during live matches, are the most affected by poor quality air.
A 2015 study which compared the performance data of footballers over the 1999-2011 period in relation to the air quality found out that polluted air reduced player performance by up to 16%.
Senegal wants to position itself as a key player in the development of sustainable sports in Africa, by installing air cleaning devices in stadiums and running tracks. The Abdullahi Wade stadium in Dakar has been fitted with air sensors to monitor air quality. An air quality sensor was also recently installed and trees planted at the Diamniadio stadium in Dakar.
“Athletes need a good environment and clean air to train optimally and to enable them to give good performances in competitions,” said William Tanui, Kenyan gold medalist at the 800m, 1992 Summer Olympics said at the event.
Air pollution caused 1.1 million deaths across Africa in 2019 and Senegal is now joining Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, and Tanzania in controlling these deaths through various clean air initiatives.
In the global index of air quality, Africa performs dismally. “Sports needs a good environment in order to function well, be played and enjoyed but also activities around sports also impact the environment,” Frank Turyatunga, director and regional representative of United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Africa Office says.
Athletics Kenya president Jackson Tuwei said having Dakar on the map of African cities with air quality sensors means “it may be difficult in future for any city or country without air quality sensors to host any major international competitions.”
A report on integrated assessment of air pollution in Africa identified 37 measures which if implemented provide a tailored package of solutions for achieving cleaner air in the continent.
“We have provided data for all the African countries on air quality. We provide to African governments and all stakeholders measures on five key areas where if they take action, Africa will be able to achieve objectives of the Africa Union Agenda 2063,” Philip Osano, center director at Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) Africa tells Quartz.
The African Union plans to develop an Africa clean air program where all African stadiums and sports facilities will have sensors that monitor the quality of air for athletes.
“Air quality is important for athletes, and we will continue with the momentum that has already been set,” Lamine Faty, director general of Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) tells Quartz.