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Olympics: Preparations heating-up as Tokyo 2020 2-year countdown begins

Olympic marathon gold medalist Naoko Takahashi, center front row, takes part in the opening leg of a 1,000-kilometer citizens' relay in Aomori, in northeastern Japan, on July 24, 2018. The relay to Tokyo began as part of a series of events held to promote the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in the Japanese capital as two-year countdown toward the event began the same day. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- One of the many challenges Tokyo needs to overcome as it prepares to host the next Summer Olympics is the deadly heat that has in recent weeks left Japan facing a health crisis.

With two years to go until the 2020 Games, the island nation is experiencing one of its hottest summers on record, with the mercury hitting 40 C in central Tokyo on Monday for the first time in history.

If similar temperatures strike during the July 24-Aug. 9 Olympics, the health of athletes, spectators and workers will be at risk during outdoor endurance events such as the marathon, race walking and cycling.

Accordingly, the International Olympic Committee has approved a plan to hold some events early in the morning to avoid the heat, and its inspection team has said all venues will be analyzed to determine what further measures can be taken to mitigate the impact of the high temperatures.

"We are mindful that we do need to prepare for extreme heat," said John Coates, chair of the IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020, during his recent visit to Japan.

"But this is not the first country to host games in extreme heat and the effect of this is something I was addressing when I visited the rowing course," said Coates.

In 1964, the last time the city held the Olympics, the event was scheduled in the much cooler month of October. As an example, in October 2017 the average temperature in Tokyo was 16.8 C, whereas in August it was 26.4 C.

According to health ministry statistics, Japan experienced a sweltering summer in 2010 when the heat killed 1,731 people, and again in 2013 when 1,077 people died from heat-related complications as temperatures peaked at 41.0 C.

This year, temperatures have soared above 40 degrees for the first time since 2013.

As health and safety questions swirl around the staging of the Tokyo Olympics, organizers said they will provide shade and large fans at security checkpoints, as well as providing air-conditioned medical tents and rest areas.

Organizers have also started disseminating weather information and warnings to national Olympic committees to allow them to prepare for what to expect from Japan's summer heat and humidity.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said Friday that holding events in the early morning is "one option" but still not sufficient, adding "everyone has to take part (in formulating measures to help prevent heat illness)."

Another priority is improving transport, with Olympic and Paralympic-driven congestion no doubt going to impact the already-packed trains and roads in the city that is home to more than 9 million people.

Last year, when Koike launched the "Jisa Biz" program that promotes staggered work shifts with the aim of reducing overcrowding on trains during peak hours, a total of 320 companies participated in the program. This year, the number of companies joining the campaign has doubled to more than 700.

"I hope people feel that Jisa Biz is easy. I want to try different things and ensure smooth transport for the 2020 Games," Koike said.

The Japanese parliament has also enacted a law to temporarily move national holidays to coincide with the Opening and Closing Ceremonies to alleviate traffic congestion in the metropolitan area.

While heat and traffic headaches remain for Tokyo, organizers claim construction of new venues is progressing on time. During a media tour of the new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward last week, they revealed the project is 40 percent complete and "going smoothly."

Tokyo had initially touted a compact Olympics, but plans changed, with the metropolitan government eventually deciding to spread the games to existing venues across nine prefectures outside the Japanese capital to reduce hosting costs.

Tokyo 2020 will feature a record 339 events in 33 sports, including four -- karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing -- that are on the program for the first time, and baseball/softball which returns after being excluded from the last two Summer Games.

The road cycling events will finish at Fuji Speedway at the foot of the iconic Mt. Fuji, while women's soccer matches will be held in Sapporo, the capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture, and in Miyagi Prefecture in northeastern Japan.

Fukushima, also in northeastern Japan, will hold the first event of the games -- a softball match involving Japan women's team -- to showcase the area's recovery from the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster.

Fukushima suffered heavily in the March 11 disaster that killed more than 15,800 people. The torch relay, which will last 121 days, is set to begin in the prefecture on March 26, 2020.

"The starting point of this Olympics has always been about helping the northeastern region," Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori told Kyodo News in a recent interview.

"We need to keep working toward showcasing our recovery from the disaster," he said.

The Olympic flame is expected to be carried to all 47 prefectures before arriving at the Opening Ceremony on July 24.

"The torch relay is what sets the mood in the run-up to the games, where Japanese people realize that the Olympics are finally starting and they are a part of it," Mori said.

"It will cost a fortune and it also takes many days, but I'm glad that I can take part in something that makes everybody happy. It's the best way to set the mood for the games."

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