Tokyo 2020: The Olympic Heat Wave Risk

Sports Tokyo 2020

If recent weather trends continue, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are likely to take place in the middle of a heat wave. Yanai Yumiko, a sports writer who has covered events around the world, considers the impact the intense heat is likely to have on the athletes.

TV Contracts Dictate a Grueling Schedule for Athletes

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will open on July 24 and close on August 9. When the schedule was announced, it must have left many people scratching their heads. Of all the possible slots in the calendar, why choose what is likely to be the absolute peak of another punishingly hot Tokyo summer?

But the fact is that the schedule is decided in advance of the bids and is essentially fixed. The International Olympic Committee expects all candidate cities to hold the games between July 15 and August 31.

Why insist on holding the games during this period? Basically, the reason is to ensure that the Olympics go out at peak television broadcasting times in Europe and the Americas. The IOC makes a substantial chunk of its revenue by selling exclusive broadcasting rights to television channels. Holding the Summer Olympics from July to August, a slow period for popular professional sports in the West, ensures blanket coverage for the Olympics and allows the games to dominate the airwaves unopposed.

The Toughest Olympics Ever?

The last time the Olympics were held in Tokyo, in 1964, the opening ceremony was held back until October 10 to avoid the midsummer heat. October is one of the best times for sports in most of Japan—indeed, October 10 was the date of the “Sports Day” national holiday until recently. (It is now held on the second Monday in October.)

The 1988 Seoul Olympics were also held later in the year, from September to October, to avoid the worst of the summer heat. However, such flexibility seems to be a thing of the past. Since the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the games have always been held in July or August, with the sole exception of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which took place in September.

For the athletes, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics may well prove the toughest yet. Despite the lip service given to the idea of “putting the athletes first” to ensure that the world’s best athletes are able to compete at their peak, there is no changing the fact that the games will be held at the very hottest time of the year. In particular there are concerns that athletes in the outdoor events will struggle to deal with the conditions.

In recent years summers in Tokyo have been even hotter than ever. In 2013, daytime temperatures soared to the 35 degree mark every day for over a week in early August. Even in the morning, temperatures are above 30 degrees, and by midday just walking around outside is an ordeal—let alone playing sports. Darkness offers little respite, and many people find it hard to sleep comfortably at night, when the temperature often fails to fall much below 30 degrees.

Heat and Humidity—the Marathon Runner’s Nightmare

The event at the greatest risk from the heat is the marathon. In Tokyo, the humidity is likely to afflict the athletes even more than the temperature. In fact, humidity is more punishing for the human body than high temperatures. Moreover, it is common practice nowadays for marathon runners to do the bulk of their training at high altitudes. Inevitably, this has a detrimental effect on their ability to withstand the heat.

The athletes do what they can to keep themselves hydrated, gulping water or sports drinks containing carbohydrates and electrolytes at aid stations. Many also pour water over their heads and legs in an attempt to prevent their bodies from overheating.

However, there is still a risk of heatstroke. Remember the scenes in the women’s marathon at the Los Angeles games in 1984, when Gabriela Andersen of Switzerland staggered dizzily over the finishing line in obvious discomfort. In later years, Andersen recalled that “I was not accustomed to the heat and humidity in California because I had trained in cool high altitudes.”

To avoid these problems, there has been a tendency in recent years to start the Olympic marathon in the early morning. Details such as the starting times for individual events are decided by the Organizing Committee. (The Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee will meet for the first time in early 2014.)

Why Early Starting Times Won’t Be Enough

During my time as a reporter, the earliest start time I covered was the December 1998 Asian Games held in Bangkok, Thailand. The starting gun went off shortly after dawn at 6:00 a.m. Takahashi Naoko, who would later go on to win the gold medal at the Sydney Olympics, won and set a new world record.

But Takahashi had particularly good resistance to the heat. This is no guarantee that all runners will be all right so long as the start time is pushed back early enough. Even among elite athletes in peak fitness, some are more vulnerable to the heat than others.

This was the case in Athens in 2004, when one athlete after another dropped out of the women’s marathon despite an evening start. Even Noguchi Mizuki, who took gold, vomited immediately after finishing. And in August 2013 Noguchi dropped out of the IAAF World Championships after coming down with heatstroke in Moscow, where temperatures were, relatively speaking, not even that hot.

At the IAAF World Championships in Osaka in August 2007, the marathon started at 7:00 a.m. The following year at the Beijing Olympics the event started at 7:30. Despite the early starts, however, in both races more than 20% of the field failed to finish.

What kinds of measures can be taken to ensure a safe tournament at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? Several courses in Japan in the last few years have taken to spraying runners with dry mist, and the Hokkaido marathon held in August every year provides support by laying on more water stations than other marathon courses.

But this alone will not be enough. Extra care needs to be taken with all sports events in extreme conditions—this is true of other track-and-field events as well as outdoor sports like soccer. This year, several players had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance during a J-League night game in August when they showed symptoms of heat exhaustion.

A Responsibility to Protect Athletes and Spectators

In its pitch, the Tokyo Olympic Bid Committee claimed that “conditions at this time of year are warm, providing an ideal climate for athletes.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. But to describe typical conditions as “warm” does not come close to describing reality. “Intense heat” would be closer to the truth.

So why are people not more worried? There has certainly been no international backlash yet—perhaps because relatively few people realize just how harsh the conditions here are at that time of year. Some concerns have been raised about the heat, mainly from competitors in track-and-field events. Athletes and coaching staff from around the world, including those in Japan, will no doubt be looking to do all they can to combat the heat.

Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics because of its promise to deliver a safe games. If Tokyo is not to betray that trust, those in charge of organizing the games have a responsibility to do all they can to protect both athletes and spectators from what is likely to be searing heat.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 12, 2013. Title photo: Gabriela Andersen aims for the finish line in the Los Angeles Olympics women’s marathon on August 5, 1984. Photo by Aflo.)

Sessions of the Summer Olympics

  City Country Opening ceremony Closing day
1984 Los Angeles USA July 28 August 12
1988 Seoul Korea September 17 October 2
1992 Barcelona  Spain July 25 August 9
1996 Atlanta USA July 19 August 4
2000 Sydney Australia September 15 October 1
2004 Athens Greece August 13 August 29
2008 Beijing China August 8 August 24
2012 London UK July 27 August 12
2016 Rio de Janeiro Brazil August 5 August 21
2020 Tokyo Japan July 24 August 9


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