Olympics: Tokyo heat makes Games difficult for athletes

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It wasn’t just the relentless sun. Or the slow, moist, still air that settles near the ground.

By noon, the canoe slalom course at the Summer Olympics, a man-made rapid on the edge of Tokyo Bay, had been transformed into something that left runners sweaty and exhausted after barely a minute, as if its bubbling waters had been brought to a boil.

“It’s like a bath,” said Matej Benus from Slovakia. “It’s like paddling in bath water.”

These Games were among the hottest in Olympic history, and aside from a few days when a tropical cyclone blew through, they did not disappoint. Beach volleyball is like a sauna and tennis courts have turned into frying pans, with one player carried away in a wheelchair and another asking the referee: “If I die, will you be responsible?”

The conditions at the equestrian center in the heart of the city were not good for men or animals.

“I felt it more for my horse,” said Australian rider Kelly Layne. “I felt like he felt it.”

Temperatures in the 80s with humidity around 76% are common in Tokyo at this time of year. As recently as the summer of 2019, dozens of people died and thousands more were hospitalized during a heat wave. The harsh climate is caused by both natural and unnatural factors.

The high pressure over the Pacific Ocean each summer causes water vapor to be transported to Japan by southerly winds. This dynamic is multiplied by a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island effect”.

An estimated 15,000 miles of roads in this metropolis absorb and retain heat. Countless buildings block airflow that might otherwise chill days and nights. Like all major cities, Tokyo is significantly warmer than surrounding areas.

Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic wipes away a sweat during his loss to Germany’s Alexander Zverev in the men’s singles semi-final on Friday.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“The conditions are really brutal. I have been playing tennis professionally for 20 years and I have never faced these kinds of conditions.

Novak Djokovic, boiling in Tokyo

Over the past summer – when the Games were due to take place but were postponed due to COVID-19 – the weather was unusually cool. Bad luck this year.

“If you’re not acclimatized, heat-related illness is a life-threatening condition,” said Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “It’s serious from a health and performance perspective.”

In the years leading up to the Games, local organizers considered repaving the streets along the original marathon route with heat-protective materials and letting the trees along the roadside grow unkempt for more shade. . Concerned about the safety of the fans, they explored the idea of ​​blowing artificial snow on the bleachers.

Part of their dilemma was solved when they banned spectators because of the pandemic. But there were still athletes to worry about.

Like other national Olympic teams, the Australians arrived with a game plan devised by its “Tokyo Heat Group” of scientists and physiologists.

The women jump and run in the shallow waters.

Australia’s Amy Cashin, left, and others compete in the women’s 3000 meter steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“Sometimes with all the understandable attention on COVID, we can lose sight of the fact that heat stress has been at the center of a lot of our health concerns,” said David Hughes, the team’s chief medical officer. “But I can assure you…we haven’t diverted our attention from the heat.”

Ice vests have become commonplace at outdoor venues, with competitors donning them as soon as they step off the field of play. Neck coolers and air-conditioned changing rooms have become invaluable as organizers hand out powdered drinks intended to combat the dehydration.

On a larger scale, International Olympic Committee leaders were particularly worried after the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, Qatar, where 28 of the 68 women’s marathon runners dropped out even though the race was held at midnight .

To the dismay of the Japanese, the IOC has moved the marathon and race 500 miles north to Sapporo, a move that could drop predicted temperatures by 10 degrees. Other competitions were scheduled in the morning and evening when possible, and heat breaks were incorporated into various events.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo is seen in Tokyo on January 28, 2021.

Coverage of the Tokyo Olympics

As athletes began arriving in Japan, organizers said they were coordinating with the Japan Meteorological Agency to anticipate severe weather. They had a break last week when Tropical Storm Nepartak missed Tokyo to the north, bringing downpours that cooled things down for a few days.

Still, conditions were tough on the courts at Ariake Tennis Park. Paula Badosa of Spain was unable to complete her quarter-final match and Russian player Daniil Medvedev complained to the referee.

Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1 player and recent Wimbledon champion, kept the pressure on the officials to change.

“The conditions are really brutal,” he said, adding, “I’ve been playing tennis professionally for 20 years and I’ve never faced these kinds of conditions.”

A few hours later, the international tennis federation decided to shift the rest of its midday matches to early evening.

At nearby Ariake Urban Sports Park, street contest skaters retreated under umbrellas between races.

“The sun definitely affects your trucks,” Puerto Rico’s Manny Santiago said of his board’s axles. “It affects your shoes, it affects how your feet feel inside your shoes because they’re sweaty – a lot more sweaty than normal.”

Alexander Zverev, seated and shirtless, has an ice pack wrapped around his shoulders.

Germany’s Alexander Zverev tries to keep his cool during his men’s semi-final win over Novak Djokovic at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

American beach volleyball player April Ross has explained that she and her partner Alix Klineman have been training in a sauna to prepare for Tokyo. Russian shooter Alexey Alipov said he had never encountered such conditions in the men’s trap event.

“It’s the first time I’ve had ripples of sweat, literally, that I’ve had to wipe every three, four and sometimes two,” he said after finishing eighth in the men’s trap. “I had to take off my glasses and wipe off the sweat.”

Not everyone walked in an unfamiliar climate. Some members of the United States women’s soccer team suggested that Japan didn’t feel much different from the summer games they played in Kansas City, Houston and North Carolina.

“Hey man, I grew up in Daytona Beach,” said Perry Baker, a winger for the men’s rugby team. “If you know anything about Florida, it’s super hot and humid there.

But even athletes competing in or on the water have found Tokyo uncomfortable. Like canoeists, open water swimmers worried about the ocean temperature at Odaiba Marine Park.

New Zealand swimmers, when not inside the Tokyo Aquatics Centre, have taken a page out of the 7-Eleven playbook. Sipping a cup, Lewis Clareburt explained to the media that they had started drinking granitas.

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