Tokyo 2020 Competition (Literally) Heats Up!

 Tokyo 2020 Olympics Climate Change

You may recall Our Daily Planet’s interview with Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn where she explained the threat climate change poses to Winter Olympic Sports like hers.

Now that the Tokyo Summer Olympics are underway, it's all the more evident that climate change will continue affecting summer sports in a similar fashion. In Tokyo specifically, where climate change is making the city hotter and more humid, athletes are already struggling to compete in the heat.

Why This Matters

As Popular Science explained, the higher the temperature and humidity, the harder it becomes for the body to cool down.

  • Our bodies can't dump heat into air that's already hot, and sweat can't evaporate into water-logged air.
  • Above 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the risk of developing heat-related illness rises sharply.
  • While heat exhaustion is treatable with fluids, rest, and a cooler environment, it can escalate into heat stroke, which can involve damage to the brain, kidneys, liver, and other internal organs.

For endurance athletes (like marathon runners and cyclists), outdoor completion is becoming exceptionally dangerous.

Bringing the Heat in Tokyo

Tokyo's mean temperature has risen by 2.86 degrees Celsius since 1900, more than three times as fast as the world's average.

Some events at these Tokyo games had to be moved far outside of the city to facilitate safer conditions for athletes. For instance the Olympic marathon had to be moved 500 miles north of Tokyo.

A recent report from the the British Association for Sustainability in Sport (BASIS) and scientists from the University of Portsmouth's Extreme Environment Laboratory and the Priestley International Centre for Climate at Leeds University warned of the dangers heat and humidity would pose at these Olympics specifically.

"Olympic organisers must take the warnings in this report seriously or face a real risk of competitors collapsing through heat exhaustion," says Mike Tipton, Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory in the School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth.

Unequal Effects

Each sport obviously has its own vulnerability to heat, but for Paralympians, the threats are multiplied. As PopSci wrote, for example, athletes with spinal cord injuries can't cool themselves below the site of their spinal lesion, according to one BASIS report. At the 2019 Olympic test event in Tokyo, the Paralympic triathlon was cut short due to unsafe conditions.

Host City Heartburn

In the decades to come, finding host cities that can safely host summer games will become exceedingly challenging. However, a town in Finland's Lapland region has already put in a bid for the 2032 summer games, making the bet that temperatures north of the Arctic circle might be more hospitable to competition.