Tokyo, Japan – As Japan prepares to host the long-delayed Olympics on Friday, it’s not just the coronavirus pandemic that is causing concern.
There are also concerns about the potential threat to the health of athletes and staff from the weather – and the extreme heat and humidity of a summer in Tokyo.
Since 2013 when Tokyo won his bid to host the Olympics, the decision to host the event in late July and early August has raised concerns, as temperatures typically peak at around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity fluctuates between 70 and 80 percent, which makes it feel even hotter.
Climate change has only made the situation more uncomfortable.
Makoto Yokohari, professor of environment and urban planning at the University of Tokyo, told Al Jazeera that his research suggests that the Tokyo Games are expected to be the “worst case” for an Olympic host city since at least 1986.
He explains that while other host cities reached temperatures similar to Tokyo’s, all had hot and dry summer climates, rather than hot and humid.
“Regarding the risk of heat stroke,” he explained, “it’s a combination of temperature and humidity.”
Worse, the typical symptoms of heat stroke are also quite difficult to distinguish from those of COVID-19.
“If there are a number of people who have heat stroke, I am very concerned about how they might be treated, and I don’t think we have the capacity to treat a large number of these people.” , did he declare.
In recent years, Japan has experienced one of the warmest climates in its modern history, accompanied by more frequent and intense rains and floods.
In 2018, at least 80 people died during a heat wave in Tokyo and on July 23 – the same date as the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Games – the temperature soared to 41.1 ° C (106 ° F) in Kumagaya, part of the Kanto plain which includes the capital.
It was an all-time record for Japan, although other recent summers have also drawn closer.
The scorching temperatures of July and August also tend to claim hundreds of lives and tens of thousands of hospitalizations that authorities have blamed on heatstroke.
The decision of the Olympic organizers to organize the games without spectators due to the pandemic, this may have disappointed international and local sports fans, but it allayed fears that elderly Japanese and others might succumb to the heat at the venues.
The latest weather forecast suggests that the Olympic period will indeed be hot and humid, although there may be a period next week where rain helps bring daily highs down by a few degrees.
‘Almost safe’ to ‘danger’
Organizers have taken some steps to reduce the risk to athletes, Olympic staff and the media of heat or, worse, an untimely heat wave.
At the end of 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), despite strong objections from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, unexpectedly changed the location of the Olympic marathon and walking events from the capital to the city of Sapporo on the island. the northernmost mainland in Japan, Hokkaido.
The move was reportedly prompted by IOC President Thomas Bach to watch in horror televised footage of marathon runners collapsing in the heat and humidity at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Doha in September 2019. He wanted to avoid the risk of similar scenes in Tokyo.
Earlier this month, Japan’s Environment Ministry released its “Heat Stress Index for Areas Surrounding Competition Venues” in English, which ranks the heat threat at each Olympic venue on an hourly basis. The five-step scale goes from blue (almost safe) to red (danger).
Olympic organizers are also implementing a variety of smaller countermeasures to protect athletes and staff, including the widespread supply of misting machines, shaded benches, umbrellas, bottled water, air-conditioned rooms and even ice baths and ice vests.
Some private companies have also joined the act. Last week, Ralph Lauren unveiled his “RL Cooling” self-regulating temperature jacket, which will be worn by the US team’s flag bearer during the Olympic and Paralympic Opening Ceremonies parades.
Branding and Innovation Director David Lauren explained in a press release that “Recognizing the summer heat of Tokyo, we sought to develop a solution for Team USA that fuses fashion and functionality – allowing them to to be and feel their best on one of the biggest stages in the world ”. .
Despite their efforts and the focus on COVID-19, the organizers of the games have not entirely escaped criticism over their preparation for extreme weather conditions.
Yoichi Masuzoe, who served as governor of Tokyo between 2014 and 2016 and was directly involved in the first rounds of preparation, shared his concerns on Twitter.
“The Olympics and outdoor competitions in this hot and humid environment are a battle against heatstroke,” he writes in Japanese. “The marathon and the walk have moved to Sapporo, but the competition in Tokyo will be horrible for the athletes.
“The decision to host the Olympics in the middle of the summer is due to television broadcasting rights. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were rightly held in the fall. This reflects the damage done by commercialism to the Olympics, which are now dominated by money. “
Masuzoe is not alone in pointing out that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which many Japanese fondly remember as a symbol of the country’s economic recovery after World War II, took place in mid-October precisely to avoid the intense heat and humidity of midsummer. of the Japanese capital.
Norbert Palanovics, Hungarian Ambassador to Japan, recently visited his country’s team during their training camp.
Some of the 176 athletes will compete in sports directly exposed to the summer sun, such as triathlon or kayaking.
The ambassador says these athletes are particularly careful to stay hydrated and have dietitians who “adjust” the types of foods they eat based on hot weather and humidity.
“The information we received at the embassy was quite comprehensive,” Palanovics said. “The organizers prepared for a long time trying to show the dangers of the Japanese heatwave, so that the athletes and the teams could prepare as much as possible. “
Even delegations from countries with a very cool climate believe they are prepared.
Raido Mitt, the coordinator of Estonia’s sports federations and team, says his Baltic nation’s 33 athletes include marathon runners, horse riders, rowers and others. In order to prepare for the Tokyo Games, they trained at special indoor facilities in Estonia under very hot temperatures.
He said he was convinced that his country’s athletes were up to the climatic challenges they face.
“Everyone knows that the conditions are very difficult and they have prepared for these kinds of conditions. “