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What the Olympics Tell Us About Limits to Climate Adaptation

August 18, 2021
Est. Reading: 4 minutes

If some of the fittest humans on earth can’t handle the heat, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Start of the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, August 7, 2021 (Reuters)
Start of the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, August 7, 2021 (Reuters)

The Tokyo Olympic Games were memorable for numerous reasons, many having nothing to do with athletics. In addition to the year-long delay and ban on spectators due to the pandemic, much of the media coverage had to do with the extreme heat. A Spanish tennis player collapsed during her match and had to leave the court by wheelchair. The water temperature in Tokyo Bay, the site of long-distance swimming events, was described as being “hot as soup,” while a slalom canoe competitor described the artificial rapids as “like paddling in bathwater.” Beach volleyball courts were hosed down before matches (players are barefoot) but the sand became hot enough to burn players' feet during some matches. A Russian archer collapsed from heatstroke and left the arena on a stretcher. The women’s soccer final was rescheduled from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the request of the finalists, Canada and Sweden, in an effort to reduce the risks to players’ health.

The best measure of weather’s impact on the Olympics may be the marathon, by tradition the final event of the Olympics and based upon a Greek myth in which Pheiddippides ran about 40 K with news of a Greek victory before he collapsed and died. Today’s Olympic marathon competitors are incredibly fit by any measure. To build up the required endurance, virtually all who qualify have been training for at least a decade; unlike in many other Olympic sports, few are teenagers, many are in their 30s, and some are in their 40s. Simply to qualify, men must have run 26 miles at a pace equivalent to 5 minutes a mile, women a little over 5 ½ minutes per mile.

The general rule is that temperatures greater than 70F create an elevated risk of heatstroke for marathoners. Temperatures this time of the year in Tokyo average 79F and have been rising since the last Olympics were held there in 1964. Average August temperatures have risen almost 3F and there are now 8 more days over 95. Recognizing the risks, the marathon was moved to Sapporo, 514 miles to the north, and the start moved up to 6 a.m., in search of cooler temperatures. The organizers added more water stations and included crushed ice. The starter’s gun went off under a sunny sky and over the course of the race climbed to nearly 86 degrees. Of the 88 runners who started, 15 did not finish, including the world champion, Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya. Much of the reporting about the race had to do with the many creative ways runners attempted to stay cool. A Polish runner grabbed two bags of water, one to drink and a second to pour over her head. A Dutch runner ran with a bag of ice perched on top of her head.

Looking back at the selection of Tokyo to host the Games, the likelihood of extreme heat risk should already have been an issue but apparently was never seriously discussed. The bidding documents submitted by Tokyo in 1990 emphasized plans to be sustainable and carbon neutral but were less than forthcoming about the heat risks asserting that “with many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform their best.” Summer high temperatures in Tokyo were already frequently above 85 with high humidity, a challenge for any outdoor endurance events.

In planning for the future, the Tokyo experience at the very least indicates more weight needs to be given to the climate when scheduling future athletic events. While politics and money will undoubtedly continue to be major factors in the selection of host locations, siting and scheduling will need to be given much more attention. As one expert analysis concluded, the Tokyo experience “could limit the range for endurance sports in terms of geography, season and time of day. Pressure will grow for big events to be moved to cooler seasons, higher latitudes, [early] morning and evenings.”

So, what does this mean for the rest of us? At the very least, adjustments in our approach to outdoor exercise. Just as Australia limits the outdoor activity of schoolchildren during periods of intense ultra-violet radiation, school breaks may have to be limited during extreme heat events. Outdoor sporting events may have to be scheduled for times and locations most compatible with seasonal temperature forecasts. The need to take such concerns seriously was dramatically told by the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warns that even in the unlikely event aggressive action is taken to limit global warming, heat extremes “unprecedented in the historical record” will occur.

The difficulties faced by the subset of the most physically fit are a warning of what we can expect. Our lives may have to change in ways currently unimaginable to avoid being outside in the hottest hours of the day, to add frequent water stops, and for those who can, to relocate to cooler locations. We are all entering the climate marathon, and just as in the Olympics, those who prepare effectively are much more likely to come out as winners.

Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)

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