Commentary / Japan

Beating the heat at the Tokyo Olympics

by Takeo Hirata

We all recall the joy and excitement when the decision was announced in Buenos Aires by the International Olympic Committee that Japan would host the 2020 Olympics (July 24 to Aug. 9) and Paralympics (Aug. 25 to Sept. 6). I also remember acknowledging that much planning and preparation would be required to meet the challenges that staging the games in the heat of summer would present.

Upon my return from Argentina, I was asked by the Prime Minister’s Office to lead the national government’s preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Games. Initially, my primary concern was Tokyo’s summer heat and humidity that would impact all participants — athletes, staff and spectators. This challenge would call on the best of Japanese expertise, innovation and imagination to bring out the best in the athletes competing in very challenging conditions. It would also showcase the determination and methods of the world-famous Japanese management and production styles.

Implementation and the fine-tuning of existing plans and the development of additional plans for the Tokyo 2020 Games began in September 2013, shortly after the IOC announced the selection of Tokyo as host.

Three overlapping questions came to mind. First, how can technology help mitigate the heat and humidity? Second, what information needs to be prepared and made available to visitors from abroad regarding the summer weather? Third, what is required to meet the particular needs of people with disabilities?

Regarding the role of technology, allow me to share an example. I vividly recall meeting the director general of the Road Division at the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry in 2013 to share my concerns about the intense summer heat and to seek new ideas to make conditions better for athletes. We concurred that something had to be done; our agreement led to the development of heat-shielding material on the roads for the marathon events.

Two years later in 2015, a portion of Aoyama-dori was paved with a special coating that reflects infrared rays. Toshihiko Seko, a 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon runner, and wheelchair marathoner Nobukazu Hanaoka participated in the test on an intensely hot and humid day. The results showed that the temperature of the specially coated road surface was 10 percent lower than that of the uncoated surfaces and thus lightened the burden on athletes. All marathon road surfaces will be coated before the games begin.

Related efforts include assuring that trees along the marathon route are not trimmed back as is usual in Tokyo. Instead the branches will be kept as long as possible to provide shade for spectators. In addition, selected buildings along the marathon routes are being asked to open their air conditioned ground floors to spectators on event days. Furthermore, the starting time of the marathons has been moved to 6 a.m.

Turning to my second question, the number of inbound tourists has risen sharply and is forecast to reach 40 million in 2020, including a large number of games spectators from around the world. There is concern that many travelers from abroad may not be aware that summer in Japan is marked not just by high temperatures but also by high humidity that makes the outdoors uncomfortable. It became imperative to prepare information for dissemination to as many visitors from abroad as possible.

Easy-to-carry leaflets written in English were prepared in 2016 to provide information regarding the features of summer in Japan, how to prevent heat-induced illnesses, symptoms of “heat illness,” and what to do when these symptoms occur. These leaflets are already widely available at public transportation terminals and lodging facilities. Note that the term “heat illness” is being used to refer to the range of symptoms rather than “heatstroke” which was originally used to denote life-threatening conditions.

In addition, guidebooks in seven languages on the use of ambulances have been published. As of last March, a list of approximately 1,600 hospitals and clinics where visitors from abroad can receive treatment in their native language has been released; this list will be expanded further. The websites of organizations involved in organizing the Tokyo 2020 Games provide the same information. www.jnto.go.jp/emergency/jpn/mi_guide.html

The use of digital phones for distributing heat alerts and emergency situations will be key to keeping the 2020 audiences safe and informed. Like the leaflets, the information will be in English and other languages. We will create these materials in ways that comport with the style of each culture. We should be prepared for new technologies to provide ongoing and perpetually updated information to visitors, to participants and to the thousands of leaders, staff and volunteers. Imagine real-time monitoring of street surface temperatures via embedded sensors providing the athletic teams and the medical teams with early-warning information. Japanese technology will again take the world stage in creating tools for communications via phones and computers.

In line with our overall goal to promote and foster an inclusive, barrier-free society, the special needs of persons with disabilities vis-a-vis the summer weather continue to be addressed. For example, all wheelchair users are closer to the ground and therefore more susceptible to heat radiation when outdoors. In fact, the body temperatures of wheelchair users are 2 to 3 degrees higher compared with persons who are standing. Moreover, wheelchair athletes who compete outdoors are even closer to the ground due to the design of their wheelchairs. Therefore, the special road coating used on marathon routes is also being applied on roadways and approaches to the various venues.

In addition, the NET119 emergency call system has been introduced to enable persons with hearing and speaking disabilities to call an ambulance via touch-screen operations on smartphones and other devices.

We will continue to promote and enhance measures to inform and remind disabled people and organizers of events about heat illness prevention and care through the distribution of printed materials.

The Tokyo 2020 Games are now less than a year away. Our hope is that everyone will share the excitement and enjoy the games. The New National Stadium, the symbol of the Tokyo 2020 Games, will be completed in November. The stadium is equipped with features such as mist-spraying devices to cool the venue and ensure that spectators can enjoy the games free from concern over the summer heat.

Taking simple precautions — wearing light summer clothing, drinking ample fluids and avoiding long exposure to direct sunlight — will help ensure that athletes and spectators will safely enjoy the games. Our hope is that not only the organizers but citizens and residents as well will lend a hand to anyone who needs assistance. It is our earnest hope that our efforts will demonstrate that everyone can enjoy sports even in midsummer and thus set a precedent for the sites of future Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Takeo Hirata, a professor at the Waseda University Graduate School of Sports Sciences, is concurrently serving as secretary-general of the headquarters for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and special adviser to the Cabinet. He is responsible for coordinating the government’s overall efforts regarding the Tokyo 2020 Games.