Did air quality affect the results in Doha? Probably yes.
The World Athletics Championships 2019 took place in Doha, Qatar, September 27th-October 6th. As we have noted in another post, in late September 2019 the deserts town in the Middle East, such as Mecca and Dubai, experienced extraordinary poor air quality. Although we did not track air quality in Doha consistently during the championship, the sampling we did indicate that the air quality in Doha was approximately on the level with Dubai.
The main persecutor of poor air quality in cities like Doha, Mecca and Dubai is relatively large dust particles (PM10). Throughout the championships, dust concentrations in the ambient air seemed to be at a level that is categorized as unhealthy or very unhealthy. At this level, health authorities would normally recommend avoiding prolonged outdoor exertion.
Most of the events in Doha took place in the Khalifa International Stadium, built in 1976 and refurbished in 2014-2017. The air in the stadium is treated, and conditioned to 26 degree Celsius, which means that athletes to little extent is exposed to poor air quality when competing.
Tough conditions for the endurance athletes
However, the marathon, and the 50 km and 20 km race walks, took place outside the stadium. To avoid the extreme temperatures during day time the events started between 11 and 12 PM, but the athletes still struggled as high humidity made the outdoor temperature feel like 40 degrees Celsius.
Of the 68 women starting on marathon, 28 dropped out. The winning time of 2:32:43 was the slowest recorded in the history of the tournament. In the men’s 50-kilometer walk, 15 of 46 starters dropped out, and six out of 23 did not finish the women’s 50k walk. During the men’s marathon conditions were a bit better, but 17 out of 73 starters still dropped out.
Could poor air quality have contributed to the number of drop-outs?
In general, we know the following:
- Athletes tend to have more asthma than the average population
- High dust concentration increase asthma
- High humidity increase asthma
- Asthma reduce lung capacity, leading to faster exhaustion
- Research has shown that poor air quality reduce the performance of marathon runners.
Under conditions like those in Doha, it is of course hard to isolate the effects of poor air quality, and it seems obvious that high temperature together with high humidity was the main reason for the high drop out rate. Nevertheless, it is not unlikely that the poor air quality in combination with high humidity, might significantly have contributed to the exhaustion of the athletes.