Olympics face heat from broiling Tokyo summer

Ever since 2013 when Tokyo won its bid to host the Olympics, there has been concern about the decision to hold the event in late July and early August when temperatures usually reach a high of about 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity ranges between 70 and 80 percent, making it feel even hotter.

Climate change has only been making the situation more uncomfortable.

Makoto Yokohari, professor of environment and urban planning at the University of Tokyo, tells Al Jazeera that according to his research, the Tokyo Games are set to be the “worst case” for an Olympic host city since at least 1986.

He explains that while other host cities reached temperatures that are similar to those of Tokyo, all of them had summer climates that were hot and dry, rather than hot and humid.

“When it comes to the risk of heatstroke,” he explained, “it is a combination between the temperature and the humidity.”

Worse, the typical symptoms of heatstroke are also quite difficult to distinguish from those of COVID-19.

“If there are a number of people who have heatstroke, I’m very concerned how they might be treated, and I don’t think we have the capacity to treat a big number of those people,” he said.

In recent years, Japan has been experiencing some of its hottest weather in modern history, accompanied by more frequent and intense rainfall and flooding events.

In 2018, at least 80 people died during a heatwave in Tokyo, and on July 23 – the same date as opening ceremony for the Tokyo Games – the temperature soared to 41.1C (106F) in Kumagaya, part of the Kanto plain that includes the capital.

It was an all-time record for Japan, although other recent summers have also come close.

The torrid temperatures of July and August also tend to see hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of hospitalisations that authorities have attributed to heatstroke.

The decision by the Olympic organisers to hold the games without spectators due to the pandemic may have disappointed both international and local sports fans, but it did ease fears that elderly Japanese and others could succumb to the heat at the venues.

The latest weather forecasts suggest that the Olympic period will indeed be hot and humid, although there may be a period next week when rain helps bring the daily highs down by a few degrees.

‘Almost safe’ to ‘danger’

Organisers have taken some steps to reduce the risk to athletes, Olympic staff, and the media from the heat, or, worse, an untimely heatwave.

In late 2019, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), despite strong objections from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, unexpectedly changed the venue of the Olympic marathon and walking events from the capital to the city of Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido.

This move was reportedly prompted by IOC President Thomas Bach watching with horror the television images of marathon runners collapsing under 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.

At the beginning of this month, Japan’s Ministry of the Environment unveiled its English-language “Heat Stress Index for Surrounding Areas of Competition Venues”, which ranks on an hourly basis the heat threat at each Olympics venue. The five-step scale ranges from blue (almost safe) to red (danger).

The Olympic organisers are also implementing a variety of smaller countermeasures to protect the athletes and staff, including the widespread provision of mist machines, shaded benches, parasols, bottled water, air-conditioned rooms, and even ice baths and ice vests.

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