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Speed bumps and potholes on the road to 2020 Tokyo Olympics

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

When planners proposed the opening date of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, they pored over historical weather data in search of the day with the lowest statistical likelihood of rain. It turned out to be Oct. 10. Happily that day, a Saturday, was fine. As the national teams marched onto the track of Yoyogi Stadium, the maximum temperature was a comfortable 20.9 degrees Celsius. And over the seven days that followed, the average temperature was 21 degrees.

One does not need to gaze into a crystal ball to know that the opening ceremony of next year’s Olympics — Friday, July 24 — is almost certainly going to be considerably hotter and more humid.

To prevent wear and tear on the athletes, volunteer guides and spectators, the start of events such as the women’s and men’s marathons — to be held on Aug. 2 and 9, respectively — will be scheduled as early as 5 a.m. And even then, concerns are already being voiced that they will be grueling events.

While most of the concerns over high temperatures and humidity have focused on humans, Nikkan Gendai (Aug. 16) reminds us that horses will also compete in the equestrian events.

Its headline went so far as to warn that horses might start “dropping like flies.”

On Aug. 14, a trial of equestrian events was held from 8:30 a.m. By 10 a.m. the mercury had already topped 30 degrees. One competitor was quoted as saying, “I could tell the difference in my horse’s response right from the get-go. For the sake of both riders and horses, we need to schedule the events at an earlier hour.”

According to the Japan Racing Association, 41 race horses showed symptoms of heat prostration between June and September 2017. “Horses can collapse from the heat,” said a source familiar with the animals. “Stallions in particular suffer from swelling of their testicles while in the paddock, and their physical energy declines. To cool them down, we’ve got equipment using aerosol mist or water.

“When horses are brought here from Europe, it typically takes from one to three weeks for them to become acclimatized,” he added. “Still, we may see some horses collapse during the games.”

Meanwhile, Weekly Playboy (Sept. 9) reviewed concerns over water quality in the Odaiba Marine Park section of Tokyo Bay, where the triathlon swimmers will compete. The headline described it somewhat ungraciously as unchi-mizu or, colloquially speaking, turd water.

The magazine became concerned after the International Triathlon Union dropped swimming on Aug. 17 for paratriathletes, switching the race to a duathlon over water quality concerns. (The level of e-coli bacteria was found to be more than twice the maximum permissible level.)

Weekly Playboy’s reporter said he observed “strips of 50-centimeter-thick, yellowish residue” washed up along the sand beach. Wearing protective goggles, he immersed himself into the tepid, 30-degree water and went below the surface.

“The transparency of the water was surprisingly low,” he said. “Visibility was limited, and when I paddled the water with my hands, the view became blurred.”

Shigeru Enomoto, a member of the Minato City Assembly, explained that “When rainfall exceeds a certain level the Tokyo Metropolitan Government releases chlorine as a simplified measure to treat the drainage.” Unfortunately, sudden downpours or rain from typhoons usually overwhelm such measures.

Two years ago, Enomoto posted a short video on YouTube showing untreated sewage running into the bay.

A spokesperson for the Japan Olympic Committee told the magazine that it had no plans to transfer the venue, but would make efforts to ensure better sanitation through use of triple filter screens.

“If it doesn’t rain, the screens won’t even be necessary,” he said.

As for the foul smell that is the source of other complaints, this is “produced by accumulation of a 2-meter-thick layer of sludge on the seafloor that discharges hydrogen sulfide and methane gas, which has nothing to do with the rainfall.

“The only way to get rid of it would be to remove the sludge,” he said.

Another variety of pollution — radiation — may worsen the already tense relationship between Japan and South Korea. Shukan Shincho (Sept. 5) foresees possible friction next year over food served in the Olympic athletes’ village.

An unnamed media source told the magazine, “In August, Chinese media reported that the South Korean contingent, concerned over radiation present in Japanese foodstuffs, might bring its own food to consume at the games.”

It seems South Koreans are anxious over produce from Fukushima Prefecture, where a nuclear plant suffered catastrophic meltdowns in March 2011.

When Olympic delegation chiefs attended an orientation seminar in Tokyo on Aug. 20-21, the South Korean representative singled out 17 agricultural and processed food products for potential radiation risk. “At this point in time, when radiation in food is no longer a problem, I felt they brought up the issue out of malicious intent,” the source said.

Former Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Masatoshi Muto did not mince his words.

“These remarks, made at the delegation chiefs’ orientation, are nothing but an attempt to harass Japan in the eyes of international society,” he said. “In a word, I’m furious.”

Environment and radiation aside, the concerns of most Tokyoites appears to be crowding, specifically how the games will affect their daily commute. According to a J-Cast News (Aug. 18) survey of 400 male and female business persons between 25 to 50 years of age, 92.4 percent of respondents expected their commutes to be adversely affected during the games. And 70.6 percent replied in the affirmative when asked if they wanted to take time off from work during part or all of the games.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.