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The Tokyo Olympics Put Climate Change on Display

With temperatures rising, will Olympic organizers be able to reasonably keep athletes safe in future Summer Games?

As the 2016 Olympic Games were underway in tropical Brazil, a group of climate researchers (including a Nobel prize winner), public health professionals, and sports physicians released a scientific paper in the Lancet with a hot headline: “The Last Summer Olympics? Climate Change, Health, and Work Outdoors.”

In their analysis, they predict that by 2085 only eight cities outside of Western Europe would be viable to safely host the Summer Games: San Francisco, Calgary, Vancouver, St. Petersburg, Riga [Latvia], Krasnoyarsk [Russia], Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan], and Ulaanbaatar [Mongolia]. Western Europe ranked highest in tolerable conditions with 25 total cities. Asia was predicted to be the most intolerable, with 323 cities deemed high risk.

Standing by the 2016 publication, co-author Cindy Chang, M.D., points to the current conditions in Tokyo as further evidence of the pressure climate change is putting on summer competition.

​​”Unfortunately the timing of the Games shows that broadcasting money supersedes athletes’ (and volunteers’) health and safety,” she said in an email to Women’s Running. “It is fortunate there are no spectators who could also succumb to heat illnesses.”

The weather during the 2021 Games has so far been in the 80s and 90s, with high humidity making it feel ten degrees hotter at times.

Extreme heat is a real threat to human health. “We often say that climate change is expected to worsen it,” says Jaime Madrigano, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. “But what I wanted to point out is that climate change has already made it worse.”

Notably at the Games, tennis matches have been rescheduled because of heat with some players succumbing to heat stroke. And Svetlana Gomboeva of Russia fainted from heat exhaustion in a qualifying round for archery.

Heat has always been a concern in Tokyo and was brought up when Japan made their bid as host. In 1964, the Games were held in the Fall for that reason.

“There is great concern also for the Paralympian athletes who will follow, many of whom have medical issues that impair their temperature regulation, [putting] them more at risk for heat illnesses,” says Dr. Chang.

2024 and Beyond

The future of the Summer Games is in question as temperatures are only expected to rise. One day they may be held entirely indoors and without a particular favorite event: the marathon.

“Looking into the future, I think we will continue to see extreme heat affecting athletes,” said William Adams, Ph.D., in an email to Women’s Running. Adams is the associate director of sports medicine research with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and has a particular interest in studying how sports can adapt to climate change.

Endurance athletes are perhaps the most at risk when it comes to extreme temperatures. “Physiologically, extreme heat (high ambient temperatures and high relative humidity) directly impacts athlete’s ability to dissipate metabolically produced body heat, especially in the more prolonged endurance events,” Adams said.

This year, the Olympic marathon will take place in the northern city Sapporo to accommodate Tokyo’s heat. Tokyo sits in what is known as an urban heat island, making it much warmer than surrounding areas. Large and even mid-sized cities can be anywhere from two to six degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than rural areas, says Chandana Mitra, a climatologist at Auburn University. That’s because cities have more insulating factors trapping heat in with polluted air, buildings, asphalt, and less greenery.

Two or three degrees might not seem like a big deal, but Mitra compares it to running a fever. “If you’re running a fever of two degrees, how would you feel? Imagine the city is constantly running a fever and the people living in those cities are constantly getting hammered by this discomfort, the thermal discomfort, which is created because of these heat waves and the urban heat island,” she says.

Future thinking is going to be key to adapting to harsher conditions.

In the United States, Los Angeles is set to host the Games in 2028 and should start planning for extreme conditions now. Currently, the western part of the country is in the worst drought so far this century, and cities are reaching all-time high records in a summer that’s already experienced five significant heat waves.

Last year was one of the hottest on record globally, with the average temperature 1.2 ℃ above the pre-industrial baseline. “There is a 90% likelihood of at least one year between 2021-2025 becoming the warmest on record,” the World Meteorological Organization said in a recent press release.

Keeping Cool

Substantial changes are needed in order to slow the rate of warming. But to keep the Summer Games alive, host cities should start thinking about infrastructure changes to reduce the harmful effects of urban heat islands (as well as for the benefit of the people who live there full-time).

According to the NYU Center for the Investigation of Environmental Hazards, cities can reduce the effects of urban heat by planting more vegetation on the ground and on roofs, installing reflective roofs or painting them white, and opting for cool pavement, such as concrete, that reflects 50% of the sunlight.

Heat is just one extreme condition threatening the future of sporting events. A warmer climate makes the likelihood of other natural disasters more of a possibility: flooding, tropical storms, and wildfires to name a few. And like with a pandemic that nobody planned for, large sporting events need to be able to prepare and adapt for the unexpected in order to keep athletes, spectators, staff, and volunteers safe.

Outside of organizational changes, athletes can do their best to prepare for hot conditions, as we’ve seen them do in Tokyo. They can spend time acclimatizing to the heat, stay hydrated, and take advantage of cooling strategies like ice vests, says Adams. Having a highly trained medical staff on site is critical, too.

“It is not possible to prevent 100% of exertional heat stroke incidents, however, existing data shows that survival from exertional heat stroke can be 100% when trained medical personnel are onsite, and the proper resources are available and used to diagnose and treat this medical emergency,” said Adams.

But even world-class athletes have their limits to what their bodies can ultimately handle.

The 2016 Lancet paper concludes with an ominous question to ponder: If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?

From Women’s Running