Tokyo 2020 Competition Heats Up, Literally

Image: © Arne Müseler/Wikimedia Commons

You may recall our interview with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn where she explained the threat that climate change poses to winter olympic sports like hers.

Now that the Tokyo Summer Olympics are underway, it’s all the more evident that climate change will continue affecting summer sports in a similar fashion. In Tokyo specifically, where climate change is making the city hotter and more humid, athletes are already struggling to compete in the heat.

  • Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva lost consciousness due to the heat.
  • Tennis players had to take medical timeouts in an effort to cool down, with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic describing the heat as “brutal.”
  • High temperatures are already causing events to be changed and postponed in an effort to keep athletes safe.

Why This Matters: As PopSci explained, the higher the temperature and humidity, the harder it becomes for the body to cool down.

  • Our bodies can’t dump heat into air that’s already hot, and sweat can’t evaporate into water-logged air.
  • Above 79 degrees Fahrenheit (26 degrees Celsius) the risk of developing heat-related illness rises sharply.
  • While heat exhaustion, when caught, is treatable with fluids, rest, and a cooler environment, it can escalate into heat stroke, which can involve damage to the brain, kidneys, liver, and other internal organs.

For endurance athletes (like marathon runners and cyclists) outdoor completion is becoming exceptionally dangerous.

Bringing the Heat in Tokyo: Tokyo’s mean temperature has risen by 2.86 degrees Celsius since 1900, over three times more quickly as the world’s average.

Some events at these Tokyo games had to be moved far outside of the city to facilitate safer conditions for athletes. For instance the Olympic marathon had to be moved 500 miles north of Tokyo.

A recent report from the the British Association for Sustainability in Sport (BASIS) and scientists from the University of Portsmouth’s Extreme Environment Laboratory and the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds University warned of the dangers heat and humidity would pose at these Olympics specifically.

Olympic organisers must take the warnings in this report seriously or face a real risk of competitors collapsing through heat exhaustion,” says Mike Tipton, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory in the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth.

Unequal Effects: Each sport obviously has its own vulnerability to heat, but for paraolympians, the treats are multiplied.

As PopSci wrote, for example, athletes with spinal-cord injuries can’t cool themselves below the site of their spinal lesion, according to the BASIS report.

  • At the 2019 Olympic test event in Tokyo, the paralympic triathlon was cut short due to unsafe conditions.

Host City Heartburn: In the decades to come, finding host cities that can safely host summer games will become exceedingly challenging. However a town in Finland’s Lapland region has already put in a bid for the 2032 summer games, making the bet that temperatures north of the Arctic circle might be more hospitable to competition.

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