Safety & Security

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Fears About Dangerous Temperatures at 2020 Olympics Heating Up

18 Sep, 2019

By: Michael Popke

Last winter, organizers of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo were starting to worry about the high  heat and humidity that could prove debilitating to athletes competing in outdoor competitions next summer.

That’s why, in early December 2018, they announced the Olympic marathon and race walks likely will  begin around dawn— 5:30 a.m. or 6 a.m. — rather than later in the morning, when temperatures already could be too hot. The starting times for early rugby matches and mountain biking events also have been shifted, taking into consideration concerns about the heat.

A deadly summer heatwave in Japan last summer prompted the moves, and another heatwave this summer — which is blamed for killing a 50-year-old Olympic construction worker in August — has sparked renewed fears about the impact high heat could have on the 2020 Games. Temperatures reportedly hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit, with humidity greater than 80 percent.

According to The Washington Post, at least 57 people in Japan died from the heat between July 29 and Aug. 4, while more than 18,000 were taken to hospitals.

George Havenith, an expert on the effects of temperature and climate on athletes at Britain’s Loughborough University, recently told Voice of Americathat humidity interferes with the body’s natural cooling system. That could make things tough on athletes.

“About 15 percent of athletes,even in a cool environment,have body temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius,” he said, adding that heatstroke often occurs when the body’s temperature surpasses 40 degrees Celsius. “Having ice baths available for the athletes to cool them down quickly [is] very important, because if you decide to [take] them to the hospital before you do the cooling, you put them at risk.”

Concerns about spectator safety also are heating up.

As The Washington Post reports, “Tokyo 2020 organizers say they are taking measures to help athletes and spectators cope with the heat, from a specially designed main stadium that is supposed to channel cooler air across spectators and onto the track, to water mist towers, ice packs and shaded areas to provide relief to spectators lining up outside venues.

“In the past, spectators have been banned from taking umbrellas and water bottles into venues, but experts warn that this could cause problems for crowds lining up on treeless streets to enter them,” the paper continued. “Organizers say they are negotiating with the International Olympic Committee to allow spectators to bring in water bottles.” Other measures being employed by Tokyo officials include spraying snow from snow machines on spectators (it doesn't bring down the air temperatures but makes people feel cooler). But organizers are still skeptical any measures taken are working. The senior medical official recently criticized the scheduling and the ineffectiveness of any measures, noting that heatstroke risk was critical.

The news has not lacked recently for stories regarding athletes who succumbed to the heat; it may be that Tokyo's strategies such as earlier race times are employed by event owners stateside. In the National Senior Games Presented by Humana, Sue Hlavacek noted organizers employed strategies such as moving some events earlier in the day as well as encouraging athletes to drink water. (In the most recent iteration of the Games, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, altitude was a concern, and athletes were encouraged to arrive early in order to acclimate themselves.)

The lastt ime Tokyo hosted the Olympics, in 1964, the Games were moved to October to avoid hot summer temperatures — a strategy not possible today, given the desire by international broadcasters to not allow the Olympics to interfere with coverage of American football and European soccer.

The Summer Olympics are scheduled for July 24 to Aug. 9, with the Paralympics to follow from Aug. 26 to Sept. 6.

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