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2020 races move north to Sapporo as cooler heads prevail

by Mark Schreiber

Contributing Writer

“It’s like you’re submerged underwater, but the water is boiling, and you’re kind of halfway cooked” — that’s how one distance runner described conditions at the women’s marathon at the 2019 World Athletics Championship in Doha on Sept. 27-28.

Even though the marathon started at 11:59 p.m., the race began and ended by the event’s own metrics with a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius and 74 percent humidity, producing a heat index of 41.6 degrees. As a result, 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish the race.

On Oct. 16, the International Olympic Committee advised its Japanese counterpart that “to mitigate the effects of temperatures that may occur next summer,” it wanted to move five long-distance events — the men’s and women’s marathons and 20-kilometer race walks, as well as the men’s 50-kilometer race walk — from Tokyo to Sapporo, where temperatures are typically 5 to 6 degrees cooler than Tokyo in late July and early August.

Aside from loss of face, the two marathons in particular are marquee Olympic events and their loss in spectator revenue will compound commitments and outlays already made by Tokyo. The action also spurred anger over the International Olympic Committee’s unilateral action. The Asahi Shimbun on Nov. 1 quoted an unnamed member of the organizing committee as having muttered, “It’s because the Tokyo government and JOC are bound by an unequal treaty.”

That expression harks back to the 19th century, when Western powers imposed inequitable conditions on Japan and China, such as opening of “treaty ports” where they enjoyed special trade and extraterritorial privileges.

The move might not even solve the problem at hand, as recent Sapporo summers have also been pretty steamy.

“From late July through early August, Hokkaido also has consecutive days when the temperature exceeds 30 degrees,” a locally based reporter told Shukan Jitsuwa (Nov. 7). “The women’s and men’s marathons, scheduled for Aug. 2 and 9, might not be that different from Tokyo.”

As a yardstick, compare Tokyo and Sapporo’s approximate highs (with Sapporo in parentheses) this year for the week of July 28 to Aug. 3: Tokyo 32 (Sapporo 30), 34 (33), 34 (34) 35 (32), 35 (33) and 34 (30).

As you can see, on only one of the seven dates above, Saturday, Aug. 3, did Tokyo’s high exceed Sapporo’s by 4 degrees. What’s more, Aera (Nov. 4) noted that none were within the acceptable guidelines set by the Japan Sport Association, which advises a “caution” be issued for temperatures ranging from 21 to 25 degrees, a “warning” between 25 to 28, and a “strict alert” for temperatures between 28 to 31. Above 31 degrees, it advises, “with the exception of special cases, sports events in principle should be halted, especially where children are involved.”

It also occurred to Aera that a change of venues is likely to affect the marathon’s outcome. The course used by previous Hokkaido marathons is sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations. But Sapporo is relatively flat, whereas the course planned for Tokyo descends at the start and rises toward the end. Some believe the Tokyo course favors Japanese runners, who are noted for their tenacity, and that would have made it likely to see runners competing all the way to the finish line. Sapporo, however, is more likely to favor African runners, whose practice is to pour on the speed and pull away from the pack, so there would be less drama at the end.

Likewise, sports writer Masato Sakai told Shukan Shincho (Oct. 31) that “Japan had good prospects to take a medal in the men’s walking competition, but if the venue is moved to Sapporo, any advantages from measures to deal with the heat would be erased, giving them less chance of taking a medal.”

Others are saying the marathon and race walks should not be the only events to be moved to Hokkaido.

“Take the triathlon, for example,” sports writer Yoshimi Oriyama told Weekly Playboy (Nov. 11). “Even though the test run held in Tokyo last August was reduced in length from 10 to 5 kilometers, some athletes were overcome by the heat.”

While the health and safety of the athletes is given as the prime reason for the move to Sapporo, at least two ulterior motives are suspected.

“Sapporo is in the process of preparing to bid to host the 2030 Winter Games,” an unnamed sports organizer told Shukan Post (Nov. 8-15). By that time, the shinkansen rail line will have been extended to Sapporo and a proposed large-scale resort-casino complex near New Chitose Airport is also on the drawing boards. It’s said to be enthusiastically backed by Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, a Hokkaido native and former Olympic competitor in speed skating and cycling.

“So by appealing to the IOC to hold the marathons in Sapporo, it’s hoped this will also favorably influence Sapporo’s selection for hosting a second Winter Olympics,” the source said.

Shukan Shincho, meanwhile, is convinced the real ulterior motive for Sapporo’s hosting the five Olympic events is to line up Hokkaido for selection as one of the first three sites in Japan for opening of the long-awaited integrated resorts. It is said to be competing with Wakayama and Nagasaki for one of three slots, the other two likely to be assigned to the greater Tokyo and Osaka areas.

In two consecutive issues (Oct. 31 and Nov. 7), the magazine laid out its case.

In the runup to the election last April, Gov. Naomichi Suzuki had made the integrated resort a focus of his campaign.

The city assembly of Tomakomai, reachable in 30 minutes by highway from New Chitose Airport, has already voted to invite the integrated resort, and the Japan subsidiaries of four developers have opened offices there, including Florida-based Hard Rock International, which announced investment plans totaling $3.5 billion. The Mori Trust organization, a property developer, reportedly expanded its investment plans for a major project that would be adjacent to the resort.

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

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