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Tokyo marks two years until Olympic Games amid concerns over heat and congestion


One of the many challenges facing Tokyo as it prepares to host the next Summer Olympics is the possibility of a deadly heat wave like the one that has gripped the nation in recent weeks.

With two years to go until the 2020 Games, Japan is experiencing one of its hottest summers on record. On Monday, the mercury hit 40 degrees Celsius in central Tokyo for the first time in history.

If a similar heat wave strikes during the July 24 — Aug. 9 Olympics, the health of athletes, spectators and workers is very likely to be at risk during outdoor endurance events such as the marathon and cycling.

Accordingly, the International Olympic Committee has approved a plan to hold some events early in the morning to avoid the heat, and its inspection team has said all venues will be analyzed to determine what further measures can be taken to mitigate the impact of the high temperatures.

“We are mindful that we do need to prepare for extreme heat,” said John Coates, chair of the IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020, during a recent visit to Japan. “But this is not the first country to host games in extreme heat, and the effect of this is something I was addressing when I visited the rowing course.”

In 1964, the last time the city held the Olympics, the event took place in October. In October 2017 the average temperature in Tokyo was 16.8 C, whereas in August it was 26.4 C.

According to health ministry statistics the nation experienced a sweltering summer in 2010, when heat killed 1,731 people, and again in 2013, when 1,077 people died from heat-related complications as temperatures peaked at 41.0 C.

This year, temperatures have soared above 40 degrees for the first time since 2013.

As concern grows over health and safety aspects related to the staging of the games, organizers have responded with assurances that they will provide shade and large fans at security checkpoints as well as air-conditioned medical tents and rest areas.

Organizers have also started distributing weather information and warnings to national Olympic committees to allow them to prepare for the summer heat and humidity.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday that holding events in the early morning is “one option” but is still unlikely to be sufficient, adding that “everyone has to be involved” in coming up with ways to prevent heat-related illness.

Another priority is improving transport. There is little doubt that Olympic and Paralympic-driven congestion will compound the already-packed trains and roads in the capital, which is home to more than 9 million people.

Last year Koike launched the Jisa Biz program, which promotes staggered work shifts with the aim of reducing overcrowding on trains during peak hours. In 2017 a total of 320 companies participated, but this year the number of companies joining the campaign has doubled to more than 700.

“I hope people feel that Jisa Biz is easy. I want to try different things, and ensure smooth transport for the 2020 Games,” Koike said.

With congestion issues in mind, the Diet has enacted a law to temporarily move national holidays to coincide with the opening and closing ceremonies.

While difficulties remain to be solved around heat and traffic issues, organizers say construction of new venues is progressing on time. During a media tour of the new Olympic Stadium last week in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, they said the project was 40 percent complete and was “going smoothly.”

While Tokyo had initially touted a compact Olympics, the metropolitan government eventually decided to spread the games to existing venues across nine prefectures to reduce hosting costs.

The games will feature a record 339 events in 33 sports, including four — karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing — that are on the program for the first time. Baseball and softball are returning after being excluded from the last two Summer Olympics.

The road cycling events will finish at Fuji Speedway, at the foot of the iconic Mount Fuji, while women’s soccer matches will be held in Miyagi Prefecture and Sapporo.

Fukushima Prefecture will host the first event of the games — a softball match involving the Japan women’s team — to showcase the area’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Fukushima suffered heavily in the March 11 disaster, which killed more than 15,800 people. The torch relay, which will last 121 days, is set to begin in the prefecture on March 26, 2020.

“The starting point of this Olympics has always been about helping the northeastern region,” said Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee president and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori in a recent interview. “We need to keep working toward showcasing our recovery from the disaster.”

The Olympic flame is expected to be carried to all 47 prefectures before arriving at the Opening Ceremony on July 24.

“The torch relay is what sets the mood in the run-up to the games, when Japanese people will realize that the Olympics are finally starting and that they are a part of it,” Mori said.

“It will cost a fortune and it also takes many days, but I’m glad that I can take part in something that makes everybody happy. It’s the best way to set the mood for the games.”

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