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Intense Tokyo heat afflicts athletes in Olympic schedule swayed by TV dollars

A Tokyo Olympic volunteer sports an "umbrella hat" as a heat countermeasure in Tokyo's Koto Ward at 10 a.m. on July 25, 2021, as daily temperatures continue to rise above 30 degrees Celsius in the capital. (Mainichi/Yoshiyuki Hirakawa)
Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka drinks water under a parasol before a match at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo on July 25, 2021. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

TOKYO -- In its application to host the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games eight years ago, the Tokyo 2020 bid committee wrote of the capital's summer: "With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best." Yet this claim is far from the reality.

    Soon after Tokyo won its bid to host the games, experts in urban environmental engineering and health science who specialized in heat countermeasures declared weather conditions in Tokyo's summer the worst for athletic competition, presenting a real risk of serious damage to the human body. They warned of an Olympics in severe heat.

    The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games responded by suggesting that the government introduce daylight saving time to bring the starting time of the events forward, but because of the impact that the move would have on people's daily lives, the suggestion was shelved as it wouldn't be able to win public support.

    It is said that spectators and volunteers have a higher risk of succumbing to heatstroke than athletes, who have taken countermeasures against it. The organizing committee conducted an experiment in which artificial snow was blown over the stands for spectators, but it was unable to come up with any radical measures to solve the problem.

    After the outbreak of the coronavirus, organizers confronted the further problem of trying to prevent the spread of infections while implementing measures to beat the heat. Physical distancing meant longer lines at venue entrances, while wearing masks in the heat increased the danger of heatstroke. If the government hadn't decided to bar fans from venues and greatly reduce the number of volunteers, then more people may have been taken to the hospital from events due to heatstroke.

    In March last year, when it was decided for the first time in history to delay the start of the games by a year, calls arose for the Olympics to be held in spring to avoid the summer heat. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), however, held steadfast to a summer schedule, to avoid clashes with professional sports competitions in Europe and North America and out of deference to TV stations broadcasting the events.

    About 70% of the IOC's income comes from broadcasting rights fees. In 2014, the IOC sold the broadcasting rights for 10 Olympic tournaments starting with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to U.S. broadcasting giant NBCUniversal Media LLC for some $12.3 billion (about 1.3 trillion yen). According to American newspaper reports, this included a clause forbidding holding the Olympics in autumn to avoid a clash with the American National Football League season. When bidding for the 2020 Games, Doha, the capital of the Middle Eastern country of Qatar, proposed holding the tournament in October to avoid the intense summer heat, but it was knocked out in the first round of bidding.

    Nevertheless, the IOC, which prioritizes TV broadcasts, has to avoid scenes of athletes collapsing in the intense heat. At the World Athletics Championships in Doha in 2019, marathon and racewalking events were moved to an unusual late-night start time, but many athletes gave up partway through the events anyway due to the intense heat and humidity. Immediately afterward, the IOC suddenly suggested holding the Tokyo Olympic marathon and racewalking events in Sapporo, capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, and forced the plan through.

    The racewalking events will be held on Aug. 5 and 6, while the marathon will be held on Aug. 7 and 8, near the end of the games. But the high temperature toward the end of July has been over 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) every day. Compared with the course in Tokyo, there is little shade offered by buildings. Organizers have asked spectators to refrain from gathering on roadsides, but during the men's cycling road race on July 24, people crowded along the course with no effective countermeasures to be seen.

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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