Altitude Discrimination?

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.


14 Responses to Altitude Discrimination?

  1. Curt Schilling says:

    At least FIFA still allows for blood doping and EPO injections.

    FIFA covered up their Operation Puerto blood banking scandal nicely, eh?

    With the oxygen boost levels allowed by FIFA, these drug cheats could play on the moon.

  2. […] today, just to prove how much my mind wanders, I have inaugurated the Sports category: 5/30/07: Altitude Discrimination?, on Fifa’s recent ban on high-altitude soccer […]

  3. Curt Schilling says:

    FIFA research life sciences DOPING PRODUCTS in use:

    Hemopure (bovine based red cells)
    Polyheme (bovine based red cells)
    human blood stockpiling (banked in advance of a key match)
    C.E.R.A. super EPO by Roche Pharmaceuticals
    AraNesp (Amgen’s EPO)
    Actovegin (Norweigen cow blood)

  4. laikal says:


    I think its silly. It’s not like Brazil or Argentina really need the help, and its not like the fixtures leap out from the bushes and blindside teams — I mean, its not like FIFA says “Hey Brazil, in 2 days you have to go play Nepal… in Nepal.” Teams have plenty of time to prepare.

    And besides, home court advantage, man. Michigan always gets dicked in the college bowl season by having to travel across the country to play in the warm regions, and the Patriots get to bring Oakland up to Foxboro in the snow. Suck it up, low-altitude teams.

  5. Kevin says:

    Yeah, and what about athletes with allergies? Since those athletes will get very ill when they play in stadia near large volumes of pollinating vegetation, they should prohibit games within ten miles of gardens or forests or what have you. I’m actually pretty sure we can track down an environmental reason to ban games outdoors in any locale. Hell, the sun’s shining outside, and it’s a leading cause of skin cancer.

    But, like Mr. Schilling above, I have little respect for FIFA anyway. From blood doping to players flopping, I can’t respect the league. I’d love to see a game as beautiful as international football played in a league with the competitive rules afforded by the NFL. Every team is placed on as equal a footing as possible, and players face harsh penalties for all manner of extracurricular activities. Maybe then soccer could get a firm footing in the US….

  6. Will says:

    Kevin, looks like I disagree with you on every point. Nothing personal about it, though. 🙂

    I’m not going to defend FIFA too much, since they do have problems, but the NFL has its issues too. I expect you’d see further problems if the NFL had to deal with teams across continents like FIFA does.

    Not that I think doping scandals have much to do with popularity. The MLS has always had a zero tolerance policy and that hasn’t increased turnout.

    I also don’t necessarily agree with FIFAs decision to ban high-altitude games, but your hypotheticals are ridiculous. If it really is dangerous to the players to play there, why shouldn’t FIFA ban it? I also wouldn’t have a problem with FIFA banning games that take place in high-heat conditions, even though it impacts small African countries more than European ones.

  7. Curt Schilling says:

    The NFL is a total joke of steroids, cortisone, amphetamines, dog fights and fixed outcome games.

    Yes, football games can be fixed too.

    Too much illegal gambling at 16 BILLION per game.

  8. B Barron says:

    The BBC article implies that national teams such as Ecuador’s have benefited from playing WC qualifying matches at high altitudes, where “the thin air hands an advantage to those acclimatised to the conditions.” That must be the understatement of the week. Altitude sickness is AWFUL, even if one limits one’s activities to sitting in a restaurant , waiting for the fondue to melt. And don’t even mention the embarrassment of the public nosebleed.

    But back to sports – it seems to me that team members who are “acclimatised” to high altitudes should be in better shape aerobically than those who live and typically play at lower altitudes, so the high altitude teams still should have at least some physical advantage no matter where they play. Whether that physical advantage is enough to overcome a team with more talented or better coached players remains to be seen.

  9. Curt Schilling says:

    Untrue. Sea level is superior for training power/speed.

    The best blood doped athletes have the best endurance.

  10. laikal says:


    I’m not sure that FIFA is any worse than the NFL* or, in particular, the thrice-damned NBA :). Still, scandals are scandals. I think the whole FIFA ban is silly, though, like you say. I’m all over environment and crowd-based home court advantages. That’s the way it should be. I want heading into the Swamp, the Big House, or the Bayou to be an experience. I want teams heading up to La Paz to know its going to be tough, just like San Deigo expects trouble heading to Foxboro in December.

    (Then again, I like the college game better than the pro game; as frustrating, inconsistent, and overblown as it is. I *feel* college football the same way that the rest of the world feels FIFA footie.)

    Come football season, this new sporting section may get real busy, eh, Kevin? 🙂

  11. Curt Schilling says:

    Just ask a New York bookie for the outcome.

  12. Kevin says:

    Will –

    The examples were intentionally reductio ad absurdum, because honestly, I think that’s what the high-altitude ban deserves. Sports are hard. If people don’t want to go through a grueling athletic competition, they shouldn’t get in the game in the first place. A high-heat ban makes some sense, but I regularly played outdoor basketball as a teenager in 95-100 degree weather for hours on end, so it would have to be a pretty high threshold before I’d support it. I’m not a world-class athlete, and I could survive it. The altitude ban would be less silly to me if there weren’t nations with populations almost entirely above the 2500m mark. As laikal accurately notes, you can prepare for those kinds of conditions, rather than excluding entire nations.

    As for your comments about the NFL steroid program being weaker than is generally let on, I can live with that. I definitely want the policy to be better, but there is a policy and it is enforced. It’s still the best professional sports league in the US, and quite possibly the world. Any game between any two teams can be close, and the level of competition is what makes it exciting to me. I will probably do battle with laikal on this blog some day over whether the NFL or NCAA college football is better (that sounds like a great project for August/September).

    As far as disagreeing with me, that’s completely cool. I’ve got nothin’ but love for you, Will. I hope things are going well in your neck of the woods.

    laikal –

    Yeah, sports is going to be a fun topic. I hope I’m not the only one who ends up writing about it after this (hint, hint).

    Mr. Schilling –

    I get that Todd Sauerbrun, Bill Romanowski, and Lyle Alzado are problems for the NFL, and that their drug testing policy could be stronger. But as I gather from your cognomen that you support at least one player/team in Major League Baseball, I think you’ll have to support your positions a little more strongly. MLB is a joke in terms of competition and its drug testing policies (and enforcement), compared to any other league on the planet, basically.

    But the NFL fixes games? Really? I need a bit more than just the claim. A quick review of the subject on Google doesn’t help your case. But I have an open mind if you can give me something solid. You’ll have to beat this site to qualify as bottom-level “solid.”

  13. J. Mok says:

    FIFA gains nothing by banning games at certain altitudes, and the countries affected are not powerhouses in the game so I don’t see any leveling effect. Brazil and Argentina hardly need the extra advantage. There doesn’t seem to be uniform “discrimination” of any particular group either. FIFA is not saying games can’t be played in those countries.
    The typical player runs about 6 miles, much of it sprinting, but I don’t know how that translates in terms of real effect. If FIFA is using medical evidence to support its decision, it becomes a matter of interpretation. There are, for instance, high altitude marathons. It’s true though that FIFA is a highly political organization.

  14. […] Almost exactly a year ago, Geek Buffet’s Sports category was inaugurated with the post “Altitude Discrimination?“, about FIFA’s controversial decision to ban matches at altitudes above 2500m. Today, I […]

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