Tokyo, Japan – As Japan prepares to hold the long-delayed Olympics on Friday, it is not just the coronavirus pandemic that is of 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 Tokyo summer.
Since Tokyo in 2013, when Tokyo won its bid to host the Olympics, there has been concern over the decision to hold the event in late July and early August, when temperatures usually reach around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and the humidity ranges between 70 and 80 percent, making it feel even hotter.
Climate change has only made the situation more uncomfortable.
Makoto Yokohari, a professor of environment and urban planning at the University of Tokyo, tells Al Jazeera that according to his research, the Tokyo Games will be the “worst case” for an Olympic host city since at least 1986.
He explains that while other host cities achieved temperatures comparable to Tokyo, they all had summer climates that were hot and dry rather than hot and humid.
“When it comes to the risk of heatstroke,” 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 some people who have heatstroke, I’m very concerned about how they can be treated, and I don’t think we have the capacity to treat a large number of those people,” he said.
In recent years, Japan has experienced some of the hottest weather in modern history, accompanied by more frequent and intense rainfall and flooding.
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 – temperatures rose to 41.1 °C (106 F) in Kumagaya, part of the Kanto -flat with the capital.
It was an all-time record for Japan, although other recent summers came close as well.
The scorching temperatures of July and August also often lead to hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of hospitalizations that authorities have attributed to heat stroke.
The Olympic organizers’ decision to hold the games without spectators due to the pandemic may have disappointed both international and local sports fans, but it allayed fears that elderly Japanese and others would succumb to the heat at the venues.
The latest forecasts suggest that the Olympic period will indeed be hot and humid, although there could be a period next week when rain will help lower daily maximum temperatures by a few degrees.
‘Almost safe’ to ‘danger’
Organizers have taken some steps to reduce the risk to athletes, Olympic personnel and the media from the heat, or worse, an early heat wave.
In late 2019, despite strong objections from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) unexpectedly changed the location 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 who watched with horror the televised images of marathon runners succumbing to 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 Ministry of the Environment unveiled its English-language “Heat Stress Index for Surrounding Areas of Competition Venues,” which ranks the heat threat at each Olympic venue on an hourly basis. The five-step scale ranges from blue (almost safe) to red (danger).
The Olympic organizers are also taking a number of smaller countermeasures to protect the athletes and staff, including the widespread provision of fog machines, shaded benches, umbrellas, bottled water, air-conditioned rooms and even ice baths and ice vests.
A number of private companies have also jumped into the breach. Last week, Ralph Lauren unveiled his “RL Cooling” self-regulating temperature jacket, which will be worn by the Team USA flag bearer during the Olympic and Paralympic opening ceremony parades.
Chief Branding and Innovation Officer David Lauren explained in a press release that “recognizing the summer heat of Tokyo, we sought to develop a solution for Team USA that combines fashion and function – allowing them to look and feel their best.” can feel on one of the world’s greatest stages”.
Despite their efforts and focus on COVID-19, the organizers of the games have not completely escaped criticism for their preparations for extreme weather events.
Yoichi Masuzoe, who served as governor of Tokyo between 2014 and 2016 and was directly involved in the earlier rounds of preparation, expressed his concerns on Twitter.
“The Olympics and outdoor competitions in this hot and humid environment are a battle against sunstroke,” he wrote in Japanese. “The marathon and racewalking have been moved to Sapporo, but the competition in Tokyo will be terrible for the athletes.
“The decision to hold the Olympics in the middle of the summer is due to the television broadcasting rights. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were rightly held in the fall. This reflects the damage that commerce has done to the Olympics, which are now dominated by money.”
Masuzoe is not alone in pointing out that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, fondly remembered by many Japanese as a symbol of the country’s economic recovery after World War II, were held in mid-October precisely to reflect the intense midsummer heat and to avoid humidity from the Japanese capital.
Norbert Palanovics, the Hungarian ambassador to Japan, recently visited his country’s team at the training camp.
Some of the 176 athletes will participate in sports that are directly exposed to the summer sun, such as triathlon or kayaking.
The ambassador says these athletes take special care to stay hydrated and are accompanied by dietitians who “match” the types of foods they consume to the hot weather and humidity.
“The information we received at the embassy was quite extensive,” says Palanovics. “The organizers have prepared extensively by trying to show the dangers of the Japanese heat wave so that the athletes and the teams can prepare to the maximum.”
Even the delegations of countries with a very cool climate think they are prepared.
Raido Mitt, the coordinator of sports federations and Team Estonia, says his Baltic nation’s 33 athletes include marathoners, horse riders, rowers and others. To prepare for the Tokyo Games, they trained under very high temperatures in special indoor facilities in Estonia.
He expressed confidence that his country’s athletes could cope with the climatic challenges they face.
“Everyone knows that the conditions are very tough and they have prepared for this kind of situation.”