August 23, 2019
Tokyo hosts the next Olympic games scheduled for July 24 to August 9, 2020. Weather-related concerns have plagued the games since Tokyo won the rights in 2013, and grow after recent record-breaking heat waves. As the world’s largest metropolitan area, the effects of vast urbanization aggravate an already warm, humid environment. Historic heatwaves affected Tokyo in 2018 and 2019. The record temperatures claimed dozens of lives each year.
According to research, Tokyo forecasts hotter weather conditions than previous summer games held in Rio de Janeiro, London, and Beijing. Scientists believe there won’t be any days during the upcoming Olympics where athletes can expect a low risk of heat illness. Tokyo's weather appears poorly suited for outdoor sporting events.
FINA requires a temperature of 77o-82o for pool water, and an ambient deck temperature within several degrees of the water; both of which are easily achievable. Because swimming is one of the most popular Olympic sports, the organizers need to prepare for long attendance lines and large spectator audiences. Not all swimming events compete in the pool, though.
The marathon swimming events for the Summer Olympics will take place in Odaiba Marine Park. Organizers conduct operational tests each year to determine if the water meets required quality standards. After disappointing results the first year, they deployed screens designed to keep contaminants away from swimmers in subsequent tests.
The most recent test was August 11 at 7 a.m. when Tokyo temperatures already topped 92o. Although organizers deployed a single-layer screen for the test event, some swimmers expressed concerns about both the water quality and temperature. USA Swimming rules prevent swimmers from racing in water warmer than 85o; FINA rules state 88o. Water temperature wasn’t published for the swimming test, but at the rowing test only ten miles away on the same day, the water measured 93o.
Much like FINA and USA Swimming regulate pool requirements, other sports have recommendations for safe limits of physical exertion in hot environments. Many athletic associations use the WBGT rating system. For example, the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) determines cooldown breaks for soccer players based on the index; the International Tennis Federation (ITF) uses it to determine when to suspend play. The WBGT index relies on research showing that the combined effects of high temperatures, high humidity, and solar radiation cause heat illness.
The Georgia High School Athletics Association uses WBGT for activity guidelines.
The Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee considers extreme heat and probability of typhoons as a major issue for the upcoming games. They’ve pledged to provide information regarding weather conditions and safety precautions through the Games’ official app. The group is testing new measures to keep people cool as fears about the impact of the heat on athletes and spectators grow.
Organizers adjusted the start times for several sporting events to account for the heat, and plan to provide water mist towers, ice packs, and shaded areas at outdoor events as well as for spectators in line outside venues. Other precautions include a specially designed main stadium that is supposed to channel cooler air across spectators and onto the track. Organizers are also considering allowing spectators to bring their own drinks into the different event venues, a practice previously forbidden.
Olympic swimming is popular with audiences around the world. The success of the American team (the U.S. won 553 of 1,674 swimming medals in the modern Olympiad) made it a primetime event in recent games and boosted the number of spectators. It’s important not to ignore the heat-related risks for athletes and spectators at the next Olympic games, so no events end in tragedy.
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