Tokyo 2020: How the climate crisis has taken centre stage at one of the hottest Olympics on record

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It’s still the greatest show on Earth, but the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games have been far from straightforward.

The build-up to this year’s Olympics focused on the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, with athletes readying themselves for an unusually quiet competition as spectators were banned from watching. Protestors called for the already postponed event to be cancelled entirely, arguing that the influx of international competitors and their subsequent teams would lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

While there has been an increase in cases, with some athletes unable to compete after testing positive, so far things have run fairly smoothly from a pandemic perspective.

Perhaps critics should have been focused on a different, equally unwelcome guest that has overshadowed much of the Games so far: the heat. Though the virus was undoubtedly people’s biggest concern ahead of Tokyo 2020, the temperature has taken centre stage since the event started.

This Olympics looks set to be the hottest on record. Though some efforts have been made to mitigate the extraordinary heat, the athletes’ palpable suffering has left some people questioning the entire future of the Games in our increasingly hotter world.

How has the heat affected athletes at the Tokyo Olympics?

Kristian Blummenfelt won the men’s triathlon last Sunday. The Norwegian athlete stormed to victory after a phenomenal run, finishing 11 seconds ahead of the next athlete.

But shortly after crossing the line, Blummenfelt vomited and collapsed to the floor. He was carted away in a wheelchair to see the medical team – and he wasn’t the only one.

While it’s certainly not unusual to see athletes pass out at the end of a race in any weather – particularly in an event as punishing as triathlon – the extreme conditions were certainly a key factor.

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The event was moved earlier, starting at 06:30 JST in a bid to beat the heat, but the water temperature was already an extraordinary 30C. Though some international triathlon organisations have guidelines forcing the swim portion to be reduced at this temperature, the full distance (1500m) went ahead in Tokyo.

Athletes then had to cycle 40km and run another 10km in steadily rising heat, reportedly around 27C for most of the race. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the men’s finish line looked like the aftermath of a particularly nasty brawl.

The triathlon events are far from the only competitions affected though. Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva passed out during a qualifying round, while numerous tennis players have spoken out about the conditions.

“If I die, will the International Tennis Federation take responsibility?” asked Daniil Medvedev of the umpire in his match last week. “I can finish the match, but I can die,” the 25-year-old Russian player added.

In an effort to combat the temperatures, athletes have been stuffing ice packs down their clothes, drinking slushies, and cooling off in ice-filled paddling pools. These makeshift solutions to the heat have left many people wondering why Tokyo was chosen as the host city – and what global warming means for Paris, Los Angeles, Brisbane, and beyond.

Is Tokyo normally this hot?

Tokyo’s summers are fairly notorious. The city has long been known for its hot, humid summers.

Ever since the city won its Olympic bid in 2013, commentators have queried whether its climate was suitable for such an event. Some have even accused Japanese officials of lying about the weather.

During the Olympic test events in 2019, athletes faced similarly gruelling conditions to this year. Rowers received medical treatment as they slumped across the finish line, while the swim in the paratriathlon was cancelled and the women’s triathlon run was cut short.

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But the climate crisis has increased the risk significantly.

In 2018 the Japanese city was struck by a deadly heatwave leaving over a thousand people dead, as temperatures soared over 40C. These deaths were declared “the first undeniable climate change deaths”, as scientists proved global warming to be directly responsible.

“The problem is not only the temperature but also the humidity as well,” said Makoto Yokohari, an environmental adviser to the Tokyo Organising Committee. “When you combine these two, Tokyo is the worst Olympic Games in history.”

Since 1900, the mean annual temperature in Tokyo has increased by nearly 3C – more than three times faster than the world’s average.

The last time Japan hosted the Olympics it was in 1964. The average temperature in August between 1953-1963 was 26.6C; in the 10 years leading up to 2021, that average has risen to 28C.

Is Tokyo 2020 the hottest Olympics on record?

This year’s Olympic Games could well be the warmest ever. As the event is still ongoing, it’s currently unclear – but it certainly looks to be going that way.

The previous hottest Olympics was the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, with maximum daily temperatures of 34.2C.

Many have asked why this year’s event has been held during the city’s warmest period – particularly in the wake of multiple heatwave deaths in recent years. The last time Tokyo was the Olympic host, the competition was moved to October to avoid this exact issue – even without the added factor of rapid global warming.

But that simply isn’t possible anymore; the International Olympic Committee requires that the Olympics be held between 15 July – 31 August. And it’s all to do with money.

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The last time the Games were held outside this period was 2000, in Sydney. These Olympics had some of the lowest television viewing figures since the 1980s. July-August is one of the only times of year where football isn’t dominating television screens across Europe, and American football doesn’t have the same monopoly in the US.

Doha, Qatar put in an early move to be the 2020 host, suggesting an October date as a workaround to the Middle Eastern heat in July. The IOC rejected this bid on the basis that “broadcasters would face lower viewership rating levels” at this time of year, resulting in “lower exposure and impact[ing] commercial opportunities.”

Whether this commitment to “commercial opportunities” over athlete safety can continue for the next Olympics remains to be seen.

Paris 2024 will likely be much more comfortable than Tokyo, as will Brisbane 2032 – which will be held in the middle of Australia’s winter. But Los Angeles 2028 will fall around peak wildfire season in California.

Climate change isn’t currently a factor in the IOC’s consideration process for host cities – which is a problem, given not only the issues faced in Tokyo, but the unprecedented nature of how temperatures are rising. Last month the Pacific Northwest, US, saw an extreme heatwave that nobody had predicted – there is a lack of predictability now, which makes it a challenge.

Amid the wastefulness of constructing new venues every four years – some have even called for there to be a permanent Olympic city. Perhaps climate change will make this suggestion a necessity.

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