With Tokyo’s extreme heat and humidity, competitors are prepping for the hottest Summer Games in history. With climate change, this will soon become the norm.

Organisers of global sports are already making adjustments to competition schedules as the weather becomes more unpredictable and events are increasingly organised during grueling conditions.

The Tokyo Games are set to be a sizzler. With anticipated average temperatures of around 35°C (or 95°F) and humidity fluctuating between 60 and 80%, 2020 Tokyo will be on par with some of the hottest athletic events ever staged.

Japanese summers are known for their oppressive and sometimes deadly mix of heat and humidity. In just one week during July/August 2019, 57 people died and over 18,000 were taken to hospital due to heat-related medical issues. In 2018, the death toll reached 1518 people.

Almost any athlete competing outdoors will be susceptible to heat stroke and poorer performance due to heat-affected cognitive deterioration. The pressure is now on to keep the world’s best athletes safe and somehow maximise performance in such difficult conditions.

The ‘feels like’ or ‘perceived’ temperature takes into account the air temperature and humidity level. No
other host city of the modern Olympic Games, dating back to 1896, demonstrates such challenging heat
levels as predicted for Tokyo 2020. Source: Szubski C: Sweltering Heat at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Sportify Cities Report. 2016.

What is the IOC doing about the heat?

The IOC has made several moves to deal with the expected conditions. The longer track races will be run in the evenings, when it is cooler. Morning rugby games will end before noon. Most recently they announced the marathon and race walk – signature events – will be moved from Tokyo to Sapporo, 500km north.

The new normal

In September 2019, the first midnight marathon was held at the World Athletics Championships in scorching-hot Qatar. Despite the concession to the elements, about 40% of the runners dropped out.

Events such as tennis’s Australian Open have instituted safety measures to account for extreme heat. The IOC and FIFA have formed committees to study heat-related issues at major events. The recent British Hit for Six report examined how climate change is drying out cricket grounds, making players more vulnerable to heat stress and increasing the likelihood of match disruptions from extreme weather.

Meanwhile, because of climate change, by 2050 many prior Winter Games locations may be too warm to ever host the Olympics again.

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