Melbourne Summer: Jekyll and Hyde

The Law of Unintended Consequences pretty much dictates that no good deed will go unpunished. When the government erected a beautiful new stadium in Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open Tennis Championship, in 1995, nothing was left to chance. To guard against complete "weather-outs" of the Open in this city of great weather uncertainty, a moveable roof was placed on the stadium court. The plan was that the roof could be closed in the event of severe heat or rain, thereby allowing play to continue. The enclosed stadium would then be air-conditioned, turning an outdoor event into an indoor event. The new court was first used in 1996.

On January 19th, 1997, Steffi Graf faced Amanda Coetzer in the fourth round of the Australian Open. On a day when stadium court temperatures reached 130F (high temperature at the Bureau of Meteorology for that date was only 100.6F), this match took on the look of a heat-ravaged battle of attrition. Coetzer won. Two days later, with similar conditions of severe heat (103.5F at the Bureau of Meteorology), the great roof of the stadium was closed for the men's quarterfinal match between Felix Mantilla and Carlos Moya. This event was seminal: The genie was out of the bottle.

The uproar was immediate: How could the tournament organizers have violated the right of players to duel in hellish conditions? Under what circumstances would roof-closing happen again? Faced with a technologic solution to the  vagaries of weather, the organizers were forced to devise a Rule. In their press release dated 12-10-97, Tennis Australia outlined the rationale for the Extreme Heat Policy: "Importantly, we were advised by the medical profession that children do not cope well in extreme heat, and we have 206 ball persons, more than 128 junior competitors in addition to countless spectators to consider." The Rule is that the referee can close the roof and suspend the starting of new matches on outdoor courts "whenever the temperature actually reaches 40C (104F) according to the Bureau of Meteorology."

What is not outlined in the Rule is the method of measuring temperature: Is temperature measured at the Bureau of Meteorology's sheltered Stevenson Screen about one mile away from Melbourne Park, or on the Stadium Court, which may well be 30F warmer? It is also inexplicable that a more sophisticated heat measure than simple air temperature was not used. After all, a dry bulb temperature of 104F can translate into a heat index value of anywhere from 95F to 120F, depending on relative humidity. Why 104F was selected instead of 103 or 105F remains a mystery. Why the organizers decided to cite  the welfare of children and spectators (and, in passing, that of the players) instead of just saying that extreme heat makes for a poor match is unclear. This episode is a halting step in the right direction.

So it was that the Australian Open became the first major sports event to have a heat stress policy. This is a milestone event, and it is our feeling that every event organizer should emulate it, but in more rational terms. Even so, the real fascination of this development is not the Rule, but the events which provoked it. Is the weather in Melbourne really all that bad?

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