Kolkata, India: Heat, humidity, and face masks: it’s going to be a sweaty Tokyo Olympics, and while coronavirus prevention is a primary goal, doctors warn that heatstroke remains a serious risk.
The Japanese capital’s severe summer heat was the top health concern for organizers long before the virus prompted the postponing of Tokyo 2020.
While the Olympics have been staged in locales hotter and more humid than Tokyo, such as Athens and Beijing, Japan’s sweating summers provide both, in an uncomfortable and sometimes lethal combination.
Organizers have relocated the Olympic marathon and racewalk to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, in the hopes of avoiding temperatures as high as 37 degrees Celsius and humidity levels as high as 80%.
The risk of massive crowds sizzling in the sun is no longer a problem, as fans are now excluded from practically all Games activities due to virus fears.
Athletes, on the other hand, who will have little time to acclimate because they will only be allowed to come shortly before the tournament, may suffer.
“Holding the games during July and August… was a serious issue even before the coronavirus pandemic,” Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, told reporters recently.
“There are still high risks of heatstroke at events such as competitive walking, triathlon, and beach volleyball,” even after moving the marathon and racewalking, he warned.
Organizers used a variety of anti-heat techniques at test events in summer 2019: 1,360 tonnes of ice to cool athletes, tents for shade, ice cream for volunteers and mist fans, and artificial snow for spectators.
Despite this, at a beach volleyball tournament, several people were treated for suspected heatstroke, and ten people, including athletes, were unwell at a rowing test event.
Ironically, Tokyo won the bid to host the Olympics, beating other competitors such as Doha, in part because of its “mild” climate.
However, the city has long been known for its oppressive summers. The Games were moved to October the last time it held them, in 1964, to avoid the heat.
And, according to scientists, it has only gotten hotter in recent years, with climate change and urbanization worsening the trend.
‘It is impossible to completely eliminate danger’
The British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) issued a report in late May warning that “severe heat and high levels of humidity constitute a concern to athletes in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.”
Melissa Wilson, a British rower, told the newspaper that she believes her sport is “approaching a danger zone” due to rising temperatures at events all around the world.
“It’s a horrible moment when you see athletes cross the line, their bodies fling back in total exhaustion and then not rise up,” she said.
Pre-pandemic 2019, moreover 71,000 people in Japan needed emergency care for heatstroke, with 118 deaths between June and September.
Even with fewer people out and about in 2020, emergency care cases were just under 65,000, with 112 people dying.
Medical emergencies during the tournament, including as heatstroke, could distract resources away from the domestic coronavirus response, according to doctors in Tokyo.
The pandemic could complicate things, with rules requiring athletes to “wear a face mask at all times, except when training, competing, eating, drinking, sleeping or during interviews”.
Given the risks of heatstroke, a Tokyo 2020 official told AFP that the rules would be “flexible depending on the situation,” enabling people to go without a mask when “outside and able to stay two meters apart from others.”
“Even though this is not heatstroke in the literal sense,” said Shoko Kawanami, a professor at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in western Japan, wearing a mask in hot weather can make individuals feel uncomfortable and make it harder to breathe.
“It’s important that spectators and volunteers take off their masks if they feel uncomfortable… making sure they keep a distance from crowds.”
The Japanese weather office predicts that Tokyo will be hotter than usual in July and August, and even a minor increase in temperature “will have a huge impact on whether the event is safe to run,” according to Ben Bright, head coach of the British Triathlon Federation.
“It is not possible to eliminate risk.”