Health

As Record Heat Threatens Tokyo Olympics, Here’s What Climate Change Means For Future Sporting Events

Topline

In addition to the threat of Covid-19, athletes taking part in the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will also face the dangers of extreme heat as soaring temperatures in the Japanese capital, spurred on by climate change, look set to make this year’s Games the hottest on record. 

Key Facts

This year’s summer Olympics are slated to be the among the hottest ever, with peak temperatures predicted to average around 30 degrees Celsius, or nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Combined with Tokyo’s stifling humidity, the dangerous conditions—which have prompted multiple government notices warning residents against exercising outdoors—impair performance and put athletes at risk from heat-related conditions like heatstroke, dehydration and burns, with beach volleyball players already complaining the sand is too hot to play on. 

The issue was not unforeseen to organizers, who made the decision to change event times and move marathon and walking events out of Tokyo in an attempt to avoid the heat, but is becoming a more pressing issue for all sports events as climate change drives temperatures up.

Outside of the Olympics, major tennis and soccer tournaments have had to put policies in place to protect players from extreme heat, U.S. triathlons and horse races have been canceled due to heatwaves and the world’s biggest sporting event, the soccer World Cup, will be held in climate-controlled stadia to avoid the worst of host nation Qatar’s heat in 2022.   

The effects of climate change are not restricted to extreme heat: shortening winter seasons pose an existential threat to snowsports, severe typhoons led to several 2019 Rugby World Cup matches to be canceled and smoke from wildfires has disrupted numerous outdoor events across the U.S. and Australia

Crucial Quote

The International Olympic Committee told Forbes it “takes concerns about heat very seriously” and has taken a “wide range of measures” to mitigate the effect of temperature on athletes. These measures include scheduling longer distance athletics and cycling events later in the day, moving equestrian and triathlon events to early morning and improving access to shade and water. 

Key Background

Tokyo’s Medical Association has stressed that holding the games in July and August was “a serious issue even before the coronavirus pandemic” and a report by the British Association for Sustainable Sport outlined the likelihood of impaired performance due to heat. Heat has already been an issue in the lead up to the event—three rowers were treated for heat exhaustion after an Olympics test event in Tokyo in 2019—and other sporting events around the world are increasingly encountering similar problems. 28 out of 68 starters pulled out of a World Championships marathon held in Doha, Qatar in 2019 due to the conditions, with one runner being taken away in an ambulance. The race started at midnight in an attempt to avoid the worst of Qatar’s heat.      

Big Number

71,000. That’s how many people sought emergency care for heatstroke between June and September 2019 in Japan. 118 of these died. A smaller number—65,000 cases and 112 deaths—occurred during the same period in 2020, though fewer people were out due to the pandemic.     

What To Watch For 

Qatar’s cooled stadia for the 2022 World Cup will likely give an insight into how outdoor sports events can be held in hot weather, especially if its cooling technology is both ecologically friendly and effective. The event is set to be carbon neutral, as are the forthcoming summer and winter Olympics’, the IOC told Forbes. Paris 2024 is slated to be the first “climate positive” games.  

Further Reading

Tokyo Olympics: fears athletes could face hottest Games on record (Guardian)

Canceled races, fainting players: Climate change turns up heat on sports (Reuters)

Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case For Rapid Change (Rapid Transition Alliance)

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