Out of thin air | Where llamas and footballers prosper, FIFA fears to tread

The most complete FIFA response to the demonstrations and protests from the Andean countries—Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico (not to mention Nepal) are also affected by the high-altitude ban—was to BBC’s World Football, broadcast Jun 9 (available online until Jun 16).

Playing football above 2,500m can seriously affect a player’s health due to high-altitude sickness, and it decreases a player’s performance by up to 30 percent if they are not allowed to acclimatise beforehand. … The realities of the international match calendar are such that it is generally not possible to release the players with sufficient time for them to get acclimatised, especially for the qualifiers of the FIFA World Cupâ„¢. Therefore, under those circumstances, playing at high altitude does not reflect the Fair Play principles of competition and respect for the opponent.

It would be difficult to determine how the altitude of stadiums such as El Campí­n (Bogotá, 2,556m), Olí­mpico Atahualpa (Quito, 2,811m), Carcilasco de la Vega (“Inca,” Cuzco, Peru, 3,248m), Municipal de Calama (Calama, Chile, 3,000m) or Nemesio Dí­ez (Toluca, Mexico, 2,680m) affects the performance of visiting teams, since the home team maintains a statistical advantage regardless of where matches are played. Lack of acclimatization—to unfamiliar food, to extreme weather and to rude supporters playing oompah music outside the team hotel at 0200—represents part of the inherent challenge of international football. It is why important competitions are often contested on a home-and-home basis, with the winner decided on aggregate, or in a league format in which teams must be tested on the road but are allowed to host games on familiar ground in equal measure. Doesn’t FIFA know about this?

Authorities acknowledge that oxygen deficiency, or hypoxia, results at high altitudes, affecting athletic performance while not necessarily causing health hazards. The British medical journal Lancet, in a thoroughgoing 2003 survey of research, begins its account of high-altitude sickness by recognizing the human body’s adaptability at elevation. Twenty-nine years before FIFA’s executive decision in late May, Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler became the first to scale Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, “once thought to be beyond human capabilities. The fact that these targets were achieved, and have been repeated many times since, is a testimony to the ability of human beings, with the right preparation, to tolerate hypoxia.” The Lancet article affirms the need to study the influence of age, sex and exercise on the condition and whether there might be genetic determinants.

Fifteen doctors enlisted by South American confederation CONMEBOL themselves could not come to a unified position at a meeting on Jun 14, nor could they agree which doctors should constitute the panel. Specialists from Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador claim they were expelled (“Panel of South American Sports Doctors Divided on High-Altitude Soccer Ban,” AP, Jun 14), while one doctor said that FIFA had pushed the altitude limit to 3,000m, which would restore Quito’s and Bogotá’s eligibility.

FIFA denied the story and reaffirmed its decision. Confusion reigns.

On Jun 12, Morales scheduled his second high-altitude game in two weeks, this match versus mountaineers on the slightly tilted face of Mount Sajama (6,000m), a dormant volcano. The match lasted 15 minutes. Players got tired chasing the ball down the slope. (Dado Galdieri | AP).

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