Two days ago, the BBC reported on Fifa’s decision to ban international soccer matches at altitudes greater than 2,500 meters. If you think about that for a minute, you know where this is going. This has sparked huge protest from certain Latin American nations, namely Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia, where a great deal of the countries are at altitudes much higher than 2,500m. Cuzco, a not-insignificant city in Peru, is at 3,400m, which is something of a problem since Peru was planning to have World Cup qualifiers there. La Paz, one of Bolivia’s capital cities*, is 3,600m. To put this in a perhaps more familiar perspective to some, Mexico City only barely makes it into legal play, being at 2,240m.
Fifa, of course, claims they made the decision based on its medical committee’s recommendation that high-altitude play was unhealthy and unfair. Some people, however, have a different theory:
Local commentators in Peru… suggested Fifa made the decision after pressure from South America’s two major football powers, Brazil and Argentina.
Both nations have struggled in recent years while playing at altitude, where the thin air hands an advantage to those acclimatised to the conditions.
Playing sport in conditions of high altitude places heavy demands on the body, forcing the heart to work harder.
Certainly, high-altitude sports training has been getting a lot of attention lately in many sports, with its purported benefits of greater endurance. Last summer, there were reports that the World Anti-Doping Agency was considering banning the use of high-altitude rooms or tents, which led to a great deal of controversy over whether this would disadvantage athletes who couldn’t afford to travel to naturally high-altitude regions in order to train. But they weren’t trying to ban high-altitude training altogether.
Neither is Fifa, really. It’s only banning games at high-altitude, because teams not used to such conditions can be affected by altitude sickness. But does this mean that in the future all sports teams should only expect to compete in climate-controlled conditions, optimized for fairness to everyone? Teams from cold climates are still expected to play in hot regions during international competition, and vice versa, etc., etc. Some people will be affected by altitude sickness, it’s true. Some people will also be susceptible to heat stroke or hypothermia.
Today, the BBC reports that protest demonstrations are being planned by the affected countries’ top officials to show that high altitude exercise is not harmful. Now, I enjoyed my time at high altitude in Peru and Chile, so I’m rather inclined to be on their side. (Here I am having fun at 4,500m in Chile.) However, I hear that altitude sickness is not at all pleasant, and I know the airlines flying out of Cuzco to Lima have to keep a few open seats for people who need an emergency flight back down to sea level, so I’m sure there’s something to Fifa’s argument. I’m just not sure I think this is really a fair ruling for the sport. Any other opinions?
*Yes, Bolivia has two capitals. The other one is Sucre, which is the constitutional and judicial capital, while La Paz is the administrative capital.