This past week someone on my anti-air pollution WhatsApp group forwarded a Facebook Event
post for a residential community in Gurugram hosting an event to raise awareness against air
pollution on the 18th November. The highlight of the event? A 5K Fun Run, with prize
categories for children, adults, and elderly adults age 60 and older. Knowing most of my friends
and family are suffering the ill effects of choking air pollution, it seemed obviously absurd to see
an event announcement like this.
But what in fact caught my eye were the logos of the two companies co-sponsoring the event,
Decathlon and CrossFit. I decided to write to Decathlon and CrossFit leadership, and try to
persuade them to cancel or otherwise alter the event, in the interest of health and safety in
heavy air pollution.
In my letter, I highlighted my disappointment, the fact that vigorous activities like running are not
considered safe in the current air pollution, and that children and elderly adults are particularly
at risk and should not be expected to run in such conditions. I included the U.S. policies for
outdoor physical activity. This week, those policies have led wildfire smoke-ridden California
schools to shut down and to postpone a major intercollegiate American football game (one that
generates millions of dollars annually). If these guidelines were in effect in India, the current
Gurugram PM2.5 levels of 180-200+ mcg/m3 would indicate canceling rigorous outdoor activity
and sports events and/or moving them indoors.
I identified email addresses for the India-based leadership as well as the global leadership for
Decathlon and CrossFit. My email went out on Tuesday 13th November.
On Wednesday, 14th November, I received one reply, from the Decathlon India customer care
team in Bangalore. They acknowledged my “inconvenience” and stated they would forward my
letter to the Decathlon store manager in Gurugram. I was thankful for their response and hoped
the letter would find its way to the appropriate decision maker from this company.
On Friday 16th November, I received an email from the French gentleman who represents
Decathlon in Gurugram. Initially, the letter was encouraging: it stated that Decathlon had
already canceled some other running events due to heavy air pollution. Further, that Decathlon
cares about their customers’ and community safety and health, and the upcoming Gurugram
event was meant to promote awareness for the environment and safe sport. How would they
promote health and safety on Sunday the 18th November? According to the Decathlon
representative, by providing a mask to each participant, and by having an ambulance on
standby during the event.
After I read the reply, I remember thinking, is this going anywhere? Am I the only one who is
going to look at this and say this is not right? Can this be made right? My WhatsApp anti-air
pollution group again retorted that this was not an appropriate response. My children laughed at
the reply, saying, “How ridiculous.” As a doctor, I felt an ethical need to respond and push for
this event to be canceled or changed in the interest of safety and health. So I wrote back.
In my reply, I stated the facts as best I could. 1) Children and elderly individuals are most at risk
when they engage in prolonged vigorous activity in levels of high air pollution. 2) Masks are not
likely to be fitted appropriately for, nor protect participants for, the duration of a 5K running race.
3) For a company like Decathlon, the optics of handing out masks and inviting children and
elderly adults to run in smoke-like air, appears absurd and negative for their brand image. 4)
Staging an ambulance seems counter to ensuring a preventive, health-minded event, and in any
case, one may not be enough. 5) Most episodes of illness would likely occur hours and even a
few days after running in such an event - Decathlon would not even know what the harmful
outcomes would be.
With a prayer for thinking leadership to prevail, I sent the letter out on the 16th November, within
hours of Decathlon’s reply to me.
It is now the night of the 17th November, and I have yet to receive a response. I have no
indication that this event will be cancelled nor, as I strongly recommended, moved indoors.
The current PM2.5 in Gurugram ranges from 180 to over 200 mcg/m3, a state of Very Unhealthy
air. In other parts of the world, all outdoor activities for children and vulnerable groups would be
and in the case of California, are being cancelled and/or moved indoors.
Gurugram has no mandated outdoor activity restrictions in high levels of air pollution. It is up to
responsible organizers and sponsors to decide if and how to stage sporting events.
Can I expect more from Decathlon, an international company, now established in India, and now
sponsoring a sporting event for an Indian community? Are the internationally established
sponsors of this event doing the best they can?
I know I cannot stop anyone from running; it is an individual choice. But sanctioning an event
that invites children and elderly people to run a race, in heavy air pollution, seems like the wrong
thing to do, and inappropriate for an international company to sponsor. Would they do it in
California this week? Or in France? Are runners in India different from runners in London? Are
the children different? I would love to hear their perspective, but I am still awaiting a reply to my
Speaking up about and against air pollution and its health harms is so important. Yet it feels like
even when you get a response, it is half-baked - and you know it would not fly anywhere else
where these companies operate.
In the meantime, I pray that people will wake up Sunday morning and simply say, “Why would I/
my children/my elderly relatives run? The air is too highly polluted to run. And my/their health is
more important than winning a gift certificate from Decathlon.”
Dr. Gita Sinha is a consultant in medical education and public health and divides her time between
the US and India. She is an core member of Care For Air India
(careforair.org) which works in raising awareness and building
advocacy around India’s air pollution crisis, and a member of citizen activist group #MyRightToBreathe
Tell us your personal stories on how you battle air pollution in your daily life and in your community.