The deadly summer heat in Tokyo has been one of the major ongoing issues for athletes and organizers as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympics.
And with the main event a year away, officials from many sports are looking for ways to tackle the problem.
The International Triathlon Union, which oversees the triathlon, known as one of the most physically demanding sports on the Olympic program, has certainly been among them.
Which is why the organization and other administrators, tried to take full advantage of the 2019 Tokyo ITU World Olympic Qualification Event at Odaiba Marine Park this past weekend as a way to examine its operations in a competition setting.
Overall, the event brought various issues to light during its four-day run.
In the women’s individual competition Thursday, for example, the running portion of the race saw the scheduled distance of 10 kilometers cut in half due to the heat.
The start times at the 2020 test event were set early in the morning in a bid to avoid the worst of the high temperatures. The men’s and women’s individual competitions kicked off at 7:30 a.m., the para race at 6:30 a.m. and the mixed relay at 8 a.m. Those start times were hours earlier than they were during past Olympics.
According to the organizers, the air and water temperatures at 7 a.m. before Sunday’s mixed relay were 29.5 and 29 degrees Celsius, respectively.
The ITU prepared a series of countermeasures for the heat, such as adding extra water stations along the running course and providing air-conditioned areas for the athletes before and after their competitions.
The sport’s global governing body also added rules allowing athletes to wear cooling vests before they competed.
Shinichiro Otsuka, who is the JTU managing director and an ITU vice president, said organizers also imported five special ice baths, which arrived in Japan last Tuesday, for the athletes.
Yasuo Mori, a deputy executive director of the organizing committee’s operations, said the event organizers also had staffers patrol the site in order to quickly identify fans suffering from the symptoms of heatstroke.
Gergely Markus, ITU’s sport director, reportedly said after the women’s individual competition that shortening the running portion of the event is something that could happen at the Olympics. It was also said he might suggest making the start times even earlier to reduce the health risks to athletes.
The weather wasn’t the only hot topic over the weekend.
The swimming leg of Saturday’s para competition had to be removed as an excessive amount of E.Coli was detected in the water in Tokyo Bay. The quality of the water was judged to be at the bottom of the ITU’s own four-level ratings system (very good, good, fair and poor).
Organizers said after the mixed relay on Sunday that they would triple the number of underwater screens used to filter the water surrounding the competition areas, which they insisted would be “highly effective,” during the Olympics.
Interestingly enough, the triathletes themselves seemed to be just fine with competing in the heat, even welcoming it, as they prepare for the games. Many didn’t seem to have a problem with the water either.
Tyler Mislawchuk, who won gold in the men’s individual competition at the event, said he likes to race in warmer conditions.
“The hotter the better for me,” the Canadian said with a smile after his victory on Friday.
He added: “We prepared specifically for this. And me being a smaller body, I’m getting the heat. We stayed in Miyazaki for 10, 12 days, so we’ve been in hot weather, getting used to this hot race.”
Flora Duffy of Bermuda, a two-time ITU World Championships gold medalist who triumphed in the women’s individual race this weekend, shared similar sentiments.
“I like these conditions,” the 31-year-old said. “It’s fun. The summer in Bermuda is very similar to the summer in Tokyo. I was born and raised in this sort of heat and humidity, so I’m very used to it and enjoy racing in it. I cope well with racing in it. And I also did a very good heat protocol coming into the race. It helped me prepare for this sort of environment.
“But obviously, a lot of people don’t cope with it as well, so it’s going to play a big factor next year.”
The American triathletes who raced in the mixed relay said they used “plenty of techniques to keep our core temperature down before we got out on the race course.”
“(We tried) shorter warmup, (and) just stayed out of the sun as much as possible,” one of the U.S. members said.
Kenji Nener, who was born to a Japanese mother and Australian father, also stressed the importance of keeping your core temperature down in order to perform closer to your best.
“Once your core temperature goes beyond 40 degrees Celsius, your body starts to shut down and you are unable to perform at a high level at all,” said Nener, who is currently working on obtaining Japanese citizenship and has represented Japan before, including at the Odaiba meet.
The 26-year-old, who trains in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, believes the familiarity of Japanese athletes to the heat and humidity “on a yearly basis” could be an advantage at an Olympics on home soil.
“So you want to use this as a tool to beat and fight against the best in the world,” he said.
Jumpei Furuya, finished 35th in the men’s individual competition and, alongside Nener, helped Japan finish 11th in the mixed relay. He said triathletes compete in many different events under various conditions across the world all the time. He believes that helps prepare them for anything.
“So you put your hand in the water and you can’t see your hand — things like that happen all the time, so you don’t really care about it,” the 28-year-old, who captured gold in the men’s individual event at last year’s Asian Games in Indonesia, said with a laugh. “That said, (triathletes) might have a higher capacity for adaptation.”
Despite the issues that still need to be fixed for the Tokyo Summer Games, the reactions from the triathletes about the overall operation of the event and course in Odaiba Marine Park were mostly favorable.
“Probably we can have (a bigger) warmup zone,” Italy’s Alessandro Fabian said. “(But) I think, in general, it’s quite good because we know Japanese are quite organized . . . very organized. I think for next year, all is good.”
Otsuka said the issues organizers uncovered during the event were homework, not problems, to be done on the way the Tokyo Olympics.
“This venue, we have the best course in the world,” he said confidently. “There’s no doubt about that.”