2020 Summer Olympics or the Tokyo Olympics was hot, and when we say hot, it’s not about the sizzling performances but the sweltering conditions. With Tokyo temperatures averaging 32.2C during the Olympics, Tokyo Games turned out to be one of the hottest and most humid on record owing to soaring temperatures in the host city of Japan. The critical combination of heat and humidity proved to be borderline dangerous for athletes.
The temperatures in Tokyo have been a matter of concern for the Olympics organisers with humidity around 70% during the Games. Understand how it posed a threat to athletes — when the body gets too hot, sweating helps to cool it off. However, if the sweat cannot evaporate, the body cannot regulate its temperature and evaporation is needed to effectively cool the body.
Ahead of the Olympics, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic stood as a challenge because of the emergence of deadly variants that caused havoc globally. However, crushing heat and humidity remained another major issue. Citing athletes’ “health and well-being” the organisers and International Olympic Committee (IOC) rescheduled some events for cooler hours and some were shifted to another city, like Sapporo, in order to find cooler temperatures. Athletics, beach volleyball, cycling, football, hockey, marathon swimming were some high-risk events.
Impact on athletes:
When the organisers were busy curbing COVID-19 cases, an urgent concern related to weather conditions emerged when Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva fainted due to the heat after finishing her qualifying round. She had to be taken out of the arena on a stretcher and later got medical attention.
In one of the tennis matches, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev took two medical timeouts during one match. He also told the match umpire that he can finish the match but he can “die”. He said, “If I die, are you going to be responsible?” Tennis players Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan and Paula Badosa of Spain retired mid-match with heat exhaustion. Badosa was even taken off the court in a wheelchair.
Tennis great Novak Djokovic also weighed in on the tougher conditions, he said, “You’re constantly dehydrated, you feel you have weights on your shoulders because there’s so much heat and humidity and stagnated air.”
The weather conditions impacted a range of events — beach volleyball players said that the sand had been almost too hot to stand on, athletes taking part in water sports had to wake up early to avoid morning heat, a caddie for American golfer had to quit due to exhaustion and another caddie was rushed to the hospital. Players, volunteers and support staff made staunch criticism of the conditions, urging the organisers to rethink the schedule.
Ice baths and mist sprays for athletes:
Organisers were quick on giving prompt help to the athletes when it came to weather-related struggles while coping with Tokyo’s blazing humid summer. They prepared ice baths and mist sprays so that athletes can stay cool remain well-hydrated. Japan also used techniques such as solar heat-blocking pavements to reduce road surface temperatures to help.
Toshiro Muto, the director-general of the Games opened up people suffering heat-related illnesses. He said, “I believe our steps have been working well so far.” He added, “This is something we need to be vigilant about.”
Remember, when in 2013, the Tokyo bid committee had promised “an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best”, we can now say that the experience in 2021 was not even close to “ideal”. But where the anticipation went wrong, considering the fast-warming of the planet?
Tokyo itself became hotter since it last hosted Olympics in 1964. As per a report by NASA, temperatures in the city have risen by 2.9C since 1900, which is almost three times the global average.
Amid all the adversities, Tokyo Olympics was organised successfully. However, it should be treated as a warning for the organisers to not underestimate climate change and global heating while planning future summer events, where athletes from around the world are invited to compete.
Especially the Paris Olympics in 2024, as a record heatwave that swept the French capital in 2019 and led to temperatures as high as 46C, killing over 1,500 people should not be ignored.