Olympic cauldron awaits 2021’s Tokyo competitors

Marathons are demanding enough without the extra heat and humidity likely in Tokyo. Image: By Capstone Events on Unsplash

Despite a recent Covid spike Japan is going ahead with its plans, involving a veritable Olympic cauldron for competitors.

LONDON, 9 June, 2021 − Athletes, spectators and the many thousands of officials and members of the media attending the events due to start in late July might be concerned about Covid. But they will also have to deal with the impacts of climate change, and the Olympic cauldron that is heating up to receive them.

With daytime temperatures likely to reach 37°C or more, and humidity levels of 80%, the Tokyo Olympics is likely to set its own Olympic record – as the hottest and most humid games ever held. The Paralympics, due to begin later in August, will also have to endure the heat.

Makoto Yokohari, professor of environment and urban planning at the University of Tokyo, told the Reuters news agency that the Olympics – originally scheduled for July last year but postponed because of the Covid pandemic – could turn into what he calls a nightmare.

Professor Yokohari has been studying climate conditions at past Olympics.
“When it comes to heat stress or heat stroke, the problem is not only the temperature but also the humidity,” he says. “When you combine the two…Tokyo is the worst in history.”

Far-reaching effects

Heat exhaustion will be an ever-present danger for athletes. Mara Yamauchi, who competed for the UK in the marathon at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, says sporting events are increasingly affected by climate change.

Writing in a special report, Rings of Fire, on the impact of climate change on athletic performance, produced by the British Association for Sustainable Sport (Basis), Yamauchi says rising temperatures have an obvious effect on outdoor sports, not only on the athletes but on officials, broadcasters and spectators too.

“Nothing stirs up passion, motivation and fascination quite like sport. In one way or another, most of us love it. But we risk potentially far-reaching consequences for sport as we know it if climate change continues apace.”

Tokyo last staged the Olympics in 1964: that year the games were held in October, when it was much cooler.

“The problem is not only the temperature but also the humidity. When you combine the two…Tokyo is the worst in history”

The International Olympic Committee, the body that supervises the games, has said that because of various multi-million dollar TV deals and the staging of other major sporting events, there is no alternative to holding the Olympics at the height of the Japanese summer.

Paloma Trascasa-Castro is a researcher at the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds in the UK.

Writing in the Basis report, she says the mean average temperature in Tokyo has increased by 2.86°C since 1900, more than three times as fast as the global average rise. Periods of extreme heat in Tokyo, she says, have become more common, particularly since the 1990s.

“ On top of the global and Japanese trends, changes in land use and urbanisation in Tokyo enhance the urban heat effect, which traps heat in the surface and impacts on thermo-regulation, effectively impairing a city’s ability to breathe.”

Record heat stress

Professor Mike Tipton of the University of Portsmouth in the UK, who helped put together the Basis study, says Tokyo is likely to be the most “thermally stressful Olympics” ever held in recent times. He also says that conditions will impair the performances of many athletes.

Alistair Brownlee is a British triathlete. In the Basis study he explains what it’s like competing in high temperatures. At one event in London held in the heat, he could not recall anything between running toward the finish and waking up on an intensive care ward.

The study describes events at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha in Qatar: because of the heat and humidity in the Gulf state – venue of next year’s soccer world cup – 28 of the 68 competitors in the women’s marathon failed to finish.

The organisers of the Tokyo Olympics have moved the marathons and long distance walking events to Sapporo in northern Japan, where temperatures are considerably lower. The rest of the athletes – along with spectators, officials and media – will have to sweat it out in Tokyo’s Olympic cauldron. − Climate News Network