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Holding 2020 Games in August dangerous

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

I was reading the official document submitted last fall by the Tokyo Governor’s office which represented Tokyo’s winning bid for the 2020 Olympics, the other day, and wondered what the penalty, if any, was for false advertising.

The Tokyo submission, under former governor Naoki Inose, stipulated that the “ideal dates” to hold the 16-day competition period were from Saturday, July 24, when the Opening Ceremony would take place, to Sunday, Aug. 9, when the Closing Ceremony would be held, and followed with a jaw-dropping description of the summer Tokyo weather during the period:

“With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”

If this is what helped Tokyo get the 2020 Games, maybe the IOC should reconsider its decision.

I have lived in Tokyo on an off since 1962, and “many days of mild and sunny weather” is not how I would ever describe the weather of late July and August in Tokyo.

The heat, ranging from 33 C to 40 C is suffocating and the humidity, which is over 80 percent most of the time, makes it all the more unbearable. It is like sitting inside one big sauna bath for a solid two months after the rainy season ends.

I have been to Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Singapore in mid-summer and in my experience Tokyo is the worst of them all.

The only conceivable places that are worse would be staging the games in, say, Death Valley, California, or the Horn of Africa.

I can’t imagine running certain outdoor events in the daytime heat of Tokyo: soccer games, cycling, the 50-km walk, the marathon. It is asking for trouble.

Exercising naturally raises the core body temperature of 37 C (98.6 F). At first, this rise in temperature aids performance by increasing blood flow to the working muscles. However, once internal body temperature gets above 38.8 C, an athlete starts to experience a significant drop in performance.

At 38.8 C, the body can no longer effectively cool itself and it begins to divert blood to the skin to help keep it cool. This decreases the amount of blood available to carry oxygen to working muscles, which affects performance.

In intense hot weather athletic events, as the body becomes severely dehydrated, the result can be heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, heat-induced coma and then even death.

In the Tel Aviv half marathon last year run in the lower 90s F (about 32.2 C to 35 C), dozens of runners fell victim to the heat. A 29-year-old man — a husband and the father of a newborn baby — collapsed along the course, was taken to the hospital, and later pronounced dead. According to reports, he was an officer in the Israeli military and an avid runner who was comfortable running up to 19.3 km (12 miles) per day.

Eleven runners have died in the London Marathon since it began in 1982. In the United States, 42 marathon runners died of cardiac arrest in the first decade of the 21st century. Most of these events were run in hot weather, in heat waves where temperatures get into the 30s.

I realize that the Tokyo 2020 Games are limited by the demands of the American TV network NBC, which wants to televise the games in the summer when more people will tune in.

Global television, of course, was not a consideration in 1964 when the first Tokyo Olympic Games were held, which is why the 1964 Games were able to be held starting on Oct. 10, Sports Day in Japan, in cool, pleasant — shall we say “mild and sunny” — weather.

But times have changed, of course, and modern media considerations are paramount.

In addition to promising a venue “where athletes can perform at their best,” Tokyo’s official bid for the 2020 Olympics, went on to say that the city of Tokyo would make “the athletes the physical and inspirational center” of the games.


 

What I would like to see is Tokyo relocate the marathon out of the city — move it up to the Sendai-Fukushima area, where the temperature is a bit cooler and the threat of heat exhaustion will be reduced.

Holding the marathon there would also provide some economic stimulus to the hard-hit region and advertise to the world, via widespread TV coverage, that Tohoku is alive and well and vibrant.

If it stays in Tokyo, which is likely, they are going to have to run it at 8 a.m., which is what the London Olympics did in 2012, or at night, which is what the Rome Olympics of 1960 did.

Neither approach is ideal since last year Tokyo experienced over 30 “tropical night” temperatures in a row, a new record, if you recall. Humidity was at 80 percent even at dawn.

Then there is the problem of the other events normally held outdoors. The city of Tokyo is going to need a lot of huge electric fans and ice blocks. Or else move everything indoors.

The first athlete to die in an Olympic event was a marathon runner. His name was Francisco Lazaro and he died competing in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, collapsing at the 30-km mark of the marathon. The cause of death was thought to be severe dehydration due to the high temperature registered at the time of the race.

However, it was later discovered Lazaro had covered large portions of his body with wax to prevent sunburn. Eventually, the wax impermeability restricted the athlete’s natural perspiration, leading to a serious body fluid electrolytic imbalance.

The novel “The Piano Cemetery,” by Portuguese novelist Jose Luis Peixto, is based on Francisco Lazaro’s story.

To date there have been two other recorded deaths involving athletes in the Summer Olympic Games, one boxer in Berlin in 1936 and a cyclist in Rome in 1960 who died of heat stroke.

Four others have died in the Winter Olympic Games, one downhill skier, two luge racers, and one speed skier — all due to crashes.

Let’s hope that Tokyo doesn’t add to the list.

Or should we say let’s hope the IOC doesn’t take the games away from Tokyo for lying about its summer weather.

  • ScottyP

    I’m assuming that the IOC had proper access to the Internet, by which it could glean the true average temperatures and humidity of Tokyo in summer. Could be wrong, though.

  • Jamie Bakeridge

    So you are upset Tokyo 2020 lied about the weather but you want them to hold the marathon in Fukushima to advertise that Tohoku is “alive and well and vibrant”???
    Tohoku is a tsunami ravaged moonscape with massive depopulation and nuclear fallout. “Alive”, “Well” and “Vibrant” it is certainly not!!!

    • Bob Whiting

      Sendai held a marathon in May this year and the city looked alive and well and vibrant to me. Tohoku is a big area, with six prefectures comprising a quarter of Honshu. Fukushima is one of them with over 5,000 square miles. Damage from the tsunami mainly affected the eastern seacoast area. So to call all of Tohoku a ravaged moonscape with nuclear fallout is not fair. Tohoku has suffered significant population losses that dates back two decades and is due mostly to other factors. Population decrease in the pre 2010 years in Tohoku is double that of the post Tsunami era. Last year, however, the industrial production of Tohoku surpassed pre-3/11 earthquake levels and exceeded the national level as well.

  • Stupot815

    I’m pretty sure the IOC aren’t total idiots. As Scotty says, they will have done their homework before making a decision like that.

  • JatinChittoor

    There is a very obvious reason behind why the writer of this article can never be a part of the decision making process in the IOC.