Reference | FYI

Olympic heat wave fears: What steps can Tokyo take?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Japan has become well-known for its omotenashi (hospitality), with the concept being part of Tokyo’s pitch when it bid to host the 2020 Olympics.

But this year’s record heat wave, which has so far killed more than 100 people and led to tens of thousands more being rushed to the hospital, has raised concern that some foreign visitors to the games may not find them as hospitable as organizers had hoped.

Fears have been rekindled over what experts say will likely be a sweltering 2020 Games, which will start on July 24 and finish on Aug. 9. Tokyo is now facing significant pressure to hammer out measures to combat the searing heat, including a potential revival of daylight saving time.

With the games just two years away, what can Tokyo do to minimize the risk of heatstroke? Could it possibly push the event back to a cooler time to avoid the hottest period of the year? Here is a look at those and other questions:

Why are the 2020 Games being held in midsummer in the first place?

To be fair, it’s not like Tokyo had much of a choice. The July-August window was a precondition set by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as it sought aspiring hosts.

When Tokyo last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, the two-week event kicked off on Oct. 10.

But today, an October Olympics is considered difficult because it would compromise the IOC’s bid to capitalize on broadcasting rights paid by TV stations — one of its biggest revenue sources. The IOC wants to avoid having the quadrennial games coincide with other popular sporting events, such as the Major League Baseball playoffs and the European soccer season in the fall, due to fears of splitting up airtime and TV ratings.

A case in point: Doha, Qatar, known for its scorching summer weather, also bid for the 2020 Olympics. It was granted special permission by the IOC to pitch an October Olympics — only to be knocked out in the first round. The committee’s evaluation report, according to Reuters, later admitted that in the event of an autumn Olympics, broadcasters would have difficulties “attracting the same audience levels” as they could when the games are held in July and August.

Is it possible to move the Olympic schedule to a cooler time?

A spokesman for the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee said the “probability is extremely low” that the July-August period could be postponed, because it would be seen as Tokyo violating the original arrangement with the IOC. Such a major rethink, if at all possible, would necessitate Tokyo negotiating with the IOC for approval, said the spokesman, who declined to give his name per internal policy.

Any attempt to push the event to a cooler period risks exposing Tokyo to global backlash given that the city advertised its summer climate as “mild” and “ideal” for athletes to perform when it bid for the 2020 Games.

“Anyone with common sense knows that Tokyo during this period of time is far from being ideal for sporting activities,” said Makoto Yokohari, a professor of urban engineering at the University of Tokyo. “I just have to wonder on what basis they called Tokyo’s weather mild and athlete-friendly. … That’s an impossible assessment.”

How dangerous is it to hold the games in the middle of summer?

Experts say the heat presents the risk of a life-threatening heatstroke.

Yokohari has conducted a study of temperature and rainfall records from 1971 to 2000 for all of the Olympic host cities. Although Tokyo trailed behind Athens and Atlanta in terms of heat, its abundant rainfall suggests it is “the hottest and the most humid” host, the professor said.

Akio Hoshi, a professor of sports and health sciences at Toin University of Yokohama, agrees. Hoshi’s team analyzed 50 years’ worth of Meteorological Agency data to ascertain what is called the “wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT)” — a comprehensive heat index based on temperature, humidity, wind speed and sunlight — from July 24 to Aug. 9 each year.

His study, which covered a period from 1964 to 2014, revealed that Tokyo’s WBGT has risen by an average 0.4 degree per year in recent years and is projected to hit as high as 34 degrees in 2020. That’s well beyond the 31-degree threshold flagged by the Environment Ministry as extremely dangerous, and the level at which all exercise should be suspended in principle. A sporting event coupled with the sizzling heat heightens the risk of life-threatening heatstroke, Hoshi said.

“I think we’ve come to a point where not only the Olympics but other midsummer sporting events, such as the Koshien baseball tournaments and nationwide high school championships, must be reconsidered,” he said.

What about daylight saving time?

Recent weeks saw debate flare up anew over whether Japan should introduce daylight saving time in a bid to minimize the impact of the heat.

According to Kyodo News, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed his ruling Liberal Democratic Party last week to look into the possibility of introducing daylight saving time — with a view to moving the clock two hours forward during the games — at the request of Yoshiro Mori, president of the Olympic organizing committee and a former prime minister.

Despite Abe’s apparent eagerness, however, the government remains split, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga repeatedly striking a negative note. Changing the clock “would impact the lives of the public.

There are only two years left before the games, too,” Suga told a regular news briefing last week.

Experts agree that adopting daylight saving time would be effective in combating the heat — if not a game-changer.

“Under the current plan, the marathon is slated to kick off at 7 a.m. … which is seen as the earliest schedule possible given the time of transportation and preparation needed by volunteers,” Yokohari said.

“But saving (an hour of) daylight, for example, would allow the race to begin at effectively 6 o’clock. That’s better than doing nothing,” he added.

Japan experimented with daylight saving from 1948 to 1951 under the U.S. Occupation. But the custom came to an end amid complaints that daylight saving led to farmers working longer hours. Concerns this time around are more varied.

“Compared with the last time we did it, we have computers now … There is just too much preparation necessary,” a senior government official said.

What other measures are being discussed?

Popular ideas include applying special anti-heat coatings to road surfaces, pruning and growing trees along sidewalks to offer more shade, setting up mist-spraying equipment and moving forward the start time for some events.

An experiment conducted by the Tokyo government Monday has shown that water sprinkling would keep temperatures on the street surface up to around 5 degrees cooler than the surrounding air temperature.

The organizing committee is even looking into what it touts as a “cool sharing” initiative, where building owners along the marathon course would be asked to keep their doors open to offer a bit of cooler air.

The cool-sharing initiative is a “last-resort” measure that basically relies on the goodwill of volunteers and is far from being a problem-solver — and so are other measures eyed by officials, Yokohari said.

“These are hardly effective enough to offset the possibility of heatstroke,” he said.

As a fundamental solution, the professor suggested relocating venues for high-risk sports, such as marathons, to cooler places like Hokkaido or Nagano Prefecture, citing an ongoing plan to hold some softball games in Fukushima Prefecture in lieu of Tokyo.

Current measures under consideration are “not entirely useless,” Yokohari said. “They are helpful to a certain degree, but even if all of them are implemented, the fact still remains that Tokyo’s heat level will keep hovering within a ‘danger zone.’ ”

“In other words, that’s how dangerous the Tokyo Olympics are.”