As Japan struggles with a third wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, it seems hard to imagine that the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will finally be held in another seven months. Harder still to now imagine one of the biggest concerns about the games before the pandemic hit — the heat and humidity of Tokyo in summertime. But what if the pandemic had never happened? What would the games have been like if they had been held as originally scheduled?
Too hot to handle
There’s precedent for such hypothetical musing. There are a number of books and documentaries about the 1940 Summer and Winter Olympics, which were to be held in Japan until Tokyo pulled out in 1938 amid the war in China and boycott threats by other countries. The games probably would have seen Emperor Hirohito open the competition as part of a militarized Japan’s attempt to strut its stuff on the global stage. The maboroshi no orinpikku, or games that never were, left few tangible remnants apart from the Goshikihashi (Five-color Bridge), an unremarkable span in Minato Ward now overshadowed by an elevated expressway.
Tokyo is still full of merchandise, posters and banners for the 2020 Games, which will retain their name even though they’ve been pushed back a year. But the summer of 2020 also left us with a record of what conditions were like. While the Meteorological Agency lists maximum temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius for July and August in Tokyo, they are often well into the mid- to high 30s.
On Aug. 11, 2020, a few days after the closing ceremony of the games were to be held, the mercury in central Tokyo hit 30 degrees by 7 a.m. and 36 degrees by noon. The agency reported temperatures of 35 degrees or above for 229 locations that day as meteorologists cited a strong high-pressure system and hot, dry winds blowing down from the mountains. A record-high 193 people died in Tokyo’s 23 wards in August last year, nearly all aged 60 or above.
It’s no wonder that even a year earlier there were serious concerns about Tokyo’s deadly heat and humidity and its risks to athletes, spectators, workers and volunteers at the games. The misgivings were alarming enough to prompt the International Olympic Committee to decide that the Olympic marathon and race walking events would be held in Sapporo. At the time, the move outraged the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which said the events could be held early in the morning to avoid the hottest times of the day.
A mixed bag for weather
Conditions in Tokyo from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2020, were an unusual, mixed bag. One of the longest rainy seasons on record resulted in mostly overcast, relatively mild weather with showers for the first 10 days of the games schedule, as well as the first time since 1951 that there were no typhoons in July. The Meteorological Agency finally declared the country’s rainy season over in Tokyo on Aug. 1. By then, the summer heat began to set in, and, three days later, the mercury notched 32 degrees Celsius, with humidity reaching 81%.
Meanwhile, the wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT), a type of perceived temperature used to estimate the effect of temperature, humidity, wind and infrared radiation on humans, reached 31.9 degrees at 11 a.m. on Aug. 4 and 32.5 degrees the following day, according to the Environment Ministry, whose guidelines call for exercise to be stopped when it’s hotter than 31 degrees.
On Aug. 6, public health authorities issued a heatstroke warning for Tokyo, notes Akira Mori, a weather forecaster and president of Weather Map.
“If the Olympic Games had been held, many athletes and spectators would be exposed to sudden changes in temperature and humidity by shifting quickly between the air-conditioned rooms and the hot and humid outdoors,” Mori says. “It was a situation where people could get sick.”
Here’s a breakdown of some of the major outdoor events in the games as they were originally scheduled in 2020, along with the prevailing conditions:
The opening ceremony was to be held July 24 at the new Japan National Stadium, which is only partially covered by a roof, leaving attendees potentially exposed to the heat. The event was to begin at 8 p.m., following an overcast afternoon with a high of 29 degrees Celsius, a low of 28 degrees and 80% humidity, according to Timeanddate.com.
The athletics events were to be held from July 31 to Aug. 8 at the stadium, with the race walking and marathon events at Sapporo’s Odori Park, where temperatures ranged from a cool 20 to 25.7 degrees. The triathlon events were slated for July 27, 28 and Aug. 1 at Tokyo’s Odaiba Marine Park, which, while being in a slightly cooler location on Tokyo Bay, has been plagued by fears of contaminated seawater. Both in the stadium and at the bay, and indeed at venues for most outdoor sports during the games, events were scheduled for mornings and evenings, and daytime conditions ranged from wet and mild to scorching and very muggy. Temperatures hit highs of 28 to 34 degrees in Tokyo, with humidity ranging from around 60% to as high as 93%.
The rowing and canoe events, held at the Sea Forest Waterway and Kasai Canoe Slalom Centre on Tokyo Bay, were mostly scheduled for July, but events for canoe sprint were to have started Aug. 3, when Tokyo began to cook. Those venues have no roofs to shade spectators from the summer sun. On Aug. 7, Tokyo recorded 31.9 degrees and 81% humidity, and a WBGB temperature of 31.8 degrees at 11 a.m. It would have been a day for events in modern pentathlon, beach volleyball, hockey and football, with some venues lacking shade for spectators.
The closing ceremony was to be held on the evening of Aug. 9, when daytime conditions were partly cloudy, 81% humidity and 31 degrees. Spectators and athletes gathering in the stadium would probably have been hot, but perhaps not terribly uncomfortable.
Even though the weather conditions during the original games schedule were not as bad as they could have been, experts caution that it’s a dangerous time of year for outdoor sports.
“After Aug. 4, daytime competitions would have been tough for athletes, staff and spectators,” says Takaaki Matsumoto, a professor at Chukyo University School of Health and Sports Science who had proposed starting the marathon 90 minutes earlier to avoid the worst heat. “From Aug. 10, Tokyo was hit by a severe heat wave, but even in the week before that there were six heatstroke deaths in Tokyo. If such a heat wave hits during the Olympics, Tokyo's emergency medical system could collapse.”
Akio Hoshi, a professor of environmental health, biometeorology, sports and health sciences at the Toin University of Yokohama, believes that since athletes are accustomed to high heat, most cases of heatstroke would have been spectators and volunteers, citing a lack of shade and water at venues. Hoshi also thinks it’s a bad idea to hold the games during this time of year for another reason.
“Athletic performance has been reported to decrease by 20-30% in hot environments,” Hoshi says. “Therefore, it’s difficult to expect new world records in a hot environment compared to a warm one. Also, considering the health of athletes and spectators, it is advisable to refrain from holding large-scale sporting events during the hottest period of the year.”
Hoshi and Matsumoto warn that even though some countries have begun coronavirus vaccinations, immunization will not be universal — it’s still unclear when jabs will begin in Japan. With the lingering threat of the virus on top of heatstroke, they question the wisdom of holding the games in 2021.
“The period corresponding to the offseason of the four major professional sports in the United States, which has the highest audience rating in North America, is limited, and it is a business-centered way of thinking,” Matsumoto says. “The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October in consideration of the summer heat in Tokyo.”
Mori points out that in addition to the heat, summer is a time for disasters in Japan including torrential rain and typhoons. He warns that if the current La Nina weather pattern continues into summer, “it’s possible that the heat will be much higher than normal during the Olympic Games.”
“On the other hand,” he says, “if the Pacific High (semi-permanent, subtropical anticyclone) is weak, the temperature will not be so high, but the humidity will be high, the risk of heavy rain will increase and typhoons will be more likely to strike. We have to be prepared for unexpected high temperatures and how to deal with disasters.”
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