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Was the Olympic marathon switch to Sapporo an athletes-first or TV-first decision?

A rehearsal for the Tokyo Olympic race walking events is held outside Sapporo Station in Sapporo on Aug. 4, 2021. Temperatures in the streets were down to 27 degrees Celsius immediately after a spell of rain. (Mainichi/Taichi Kaizuka)

TOKYO -- The choice to move the Tokyo Olympic marathon and race walking events to Sapporo, capital of Japan's northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, was a sudden one purportedly made for athletes' benefit. But was it actually guided by how the events would appear on TV?

    In October 2019, when the pre-postponed games were still only around nine months away, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which was concerned about brutal summer temperatures in Tokyo, put forward a plan to move the road athletics events to Sapporo, which was expected to be 5 to 6 degrees Celsius cooler than Tokyo.

    The proposal to hold the marathon, one of the games' highlights, outside the host city was highly irregular. But the Japanese side including the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games was forced to accept the terms.

    The move was triggered by conditions at the 2019 World Athletics Championship held in Doha, the capital of Middle East nation Qatar in September and October. To beat the heat, events were held late in the night, but temperatures still exceeded 30 C. Under the harsh conditions, including humidity of over 70%, a record 41% of the 68 entrants -- 28 athletes --- retired from the women's marathon mid-competition. In the men's 50-kilometer race walk, which took over four hours, some 40% of entrants withdrew during the event. Shocking images of athletes collapsing and being carried away on stretchers were beamed around the world.

    The IOC later said, "Athletes' health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns," but their true views appear to be somewhat different. For the IOC, which collects about 70% of its income from broadcasting rights fees, a repeat of the abnormal scenes in Doha at the Tokyo Olympics would not play well on TV. The IOC position was clear when its Vice President John Coates said that the organization doesn't want to be showing athletes struggling and collapsing on TV.

    But if athletes' health is the priority, then the games should not have been held at the height of summer in the first place. Since the time Tokyo was named the 2020 Summer Games host city, heat prevention experts have been pointing out that the weather conditions are the worst they could be, and that they can do significant damage to the human body.

    But out of consideration for TV broadcasters, the schedule wasn't shifted from July and August -- a period when there are few overlaps with the sporting calendar in the U.S. and Europe. The move to Sapporo was a desperate measure.

    The marathon and race walking events will take place from Aug. 5 to 8. As a heat prevention measure, the start times of the men's and women's marathons were temporarily moved to 6:00 a.m., earlier than the 7:30 a.m. slot proposed in the original bid. But with the move to Sapporo expected to bring lower temperatures with it, the start time was delayed by an hour, to 7:00 a.m. An earlier start time is preferable when considering the heat and humidity, but circumstances dictated that a later time slot would be ideal as far as viewing figures were concerned.

    Yusuke Suzuki, winner of the 50-kilometer race walk at the 2019 Doha championships, pulled out of the Olympics as he hadn't been able to conduct high intensity training for nearly two years, meaning he was not in an ideal condition to compete.

    To avoid a repeat of terrible scenes like those seen in 2019, a complete rethink is needed -- including on when the games are held. But for now, a situation far from the ideal of "athletes first" persists.

    (Japanese original by Yuta Kobayashi, Sports News Department)

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