Sweltering Japanese heat likely to take toll on athletes in 2020

Tokyo Letter: Olympic organisers appear to have played down hot and steamy conditions

The organisers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are finally thinking about the city's punishing heat.

Freakish weather dominates the news in Japan this month. Torrential rain in the west of the country caused floods and landslides that took over 200 lives. A heatwave has killed a dozen people in the last week, including a six-year-old boy, and sent thousands to the hospital.

At the best of times, July in Tokyo is a sweaty test of endurance: like being shrouded in a warm, wet blanket. This year, with daytime temperatures hovering around a humid 35 degrees, it has been particularly oppressive. So picture yourself running 40km in the city’s oven-like streets.

In two years’ time, Olympic athletes will be pounding the marathon course which winds through the capital’s most iconic sights before finishing with a punishing 3km climb to the new stadium. The men’s race is scheduled for August 9th, the last day of the Tokyo Olympics and slap in the middle of its wilting summer.


There's no rule that says it must be so: the 1964 Tokyo Games took place in October. The Japan Olympic Committee (JOC), which approved Tokyo's latest bid and convinced its international counterpart, has its eyes on prime summer slots for TV coverage in America, and the giant advertisers who will help foot the games' bill.

The original JOC submission said the “ideal dates” for the 16-day competition period were from July 24th. “With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”

Midsummer suffocation

That is a laughably charitable description of the city's suffocating midsummer, as the organisers seem to have belatedly realised. Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya admitted to Reuters recently that they "did not think especially about counter-measures against the heat" for the marathon event * but "are currently discussing" what to do.

This month the JOC won permission from the International Olympic Committee to move the starting time of some outdoor events. The men's and women's marathons will start at 7am. The men's 50km walk, a gruelling four-hour race, will begin near the crack of dawn at 6am.

Fortunately there was a trial run – though not with the happiest result. In 2007, the marathon event of the World Athletics Championships began in Osaka, Japan’s third-largest city, at 7am. By the time the race was over, the thermometer had topped 30 degrees and nearly a third of the pooped runners had dropped out.

That’s not the worse that can happen. Deaths from heatstroke in competitive sports are not uncommon. A team of researchers at the University of Tokyo concluded earlier this year that athletes on the Tokyo marathon course faced “extreme danger”. Even spectators may be vulnerable, it warned.

Over 80,000 spectators are expected to file into the National Stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies. This week, journalists were shown around the half-finished venue, where nurses are on call in case any of the 2,000 construction workers gets heatstoke. The reporters sweated like horses after a race.

Steaming roads

The head of the $1.3-billion stadium project, Tadashi Mochizuki, sought to reassure them. The stadium had been designed to allow "breezes to pass through" and would have about 180 large fans – though no air-conditioners. Machines installed over the entrance gates will pump out a cool mist to bring down temperatures. Elsewhere the government has mulled sprinkling water on steaming roads.

It sounds like using a toothbrush to wash a truck. Scientists have warned this week that climate change will make July’s extreme weather more common. Even Japan, probably better prepared for natural disasters than any other country on the planet, has been caught out by the deadly weather.

The increasingly unpredictable climate will surely trigger more innovations. Tokyo’s government, for example, is experimenting with asphalt, using a compound that reflects ultraviolet waves to cool the ground temperature. A total of 116km of road has to date been covered with the new surface.

Whatever happens, little may deter people in this marathon-mad city from coming out to cheer on the par boiled Olympic runners – not even the prospect that some may not make it to the end of the race.

* This article was amended on July 26th to reflect the fact that Masa Takaya was speaking in the context of the marathon and not the Olympic Games in their entirety.