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Tokyo Olympics could be hottest on record as high temperatures hit Japan days before opening ceremony

Against the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic and the worsening climate crisis, Tokyo’s stripped-back Olympics presents major challenges for athletes and audiences

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 21 July 2021 00:19 BST
Olympic torch in tundra

Japan’s Olympic dreams may have already been marred by Covid-19, but in a games that could be judged a success just by getting through it at all, another unwelcome spectre is threatening to derail even this small triumph: dangerously high temperatures.

As parts of California, Canada and Siberia swelter in record-breaking heat waves which have sparked wildfires and raised international concern over the climate crisis, Japan is also on course for temperatures exceeding 30C, potentially leading to the hottest Olympic Games ever.

The forecast was not unexpected, and the games have already been dubbed “the rings of fire”, after a report in May suggested the climate crisis and Japan’s hot summers could combine, with athletes forced to endure conditions “too hostile” for the human body to function at its best.

Tokyo’s average temperature has risen by 2.9C since 1900, more than three times faster than the global average rise.

Tokyo 2020 is now in the running to be the hottest Olympic Games on record. It will also be a stripped back affair due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, with almost no spectators in stadiums and travel to Japan largely prevented.

When the games open on Friday, temperatures of 31C are expected, and they are then expected to hover around the 30C mark over the following week, with high levels of humidity and electrical storms forecast.

Rain is expected later in the week as tropical storm In-Fa is forecast to turn into a typhoon on Tuesday night.

One upside could be that the large waves resulting from the storm may benefit surfers training for the Olympics first ever surfing competition.

Due to the current high temperatures, Olympic volleyball players already in Japan have complained the sand has been too hot to stand on, meanwhile Tokyo residents have been warned not to exercise outdoors due to the heat.

Earlier this month, Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, warned: “Holding the Games during July and August ... was a serious issue even before the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are still high risks of heatstroke at events such as competitive walking, triathlon and beach volleyball,” he said, according to AFP.

The high temperatures will not be welcomed by Japan’s Olympic committee, which presented Tokyo as having “mild” weather perfect for athletes, with Tokyo’s bid winning against rivals including Doha in Qatar.

But Tokyo has a long history of summer heatwaves, with a deadly spike in temperatures in July 2018 raising the mercury to above 40C in Tokyo, and resulting in scores of people dying.

When the Olympic games were last held in the city, in 1964, they were moved back to Autumn so athletes weren’t at risk from high temperatures.

This time round the International Olympic Committee insisted some events were moved out of the capital – the marathon and some walking races are to be held in Sapporo, 500 miles north of Tokyo.

Laura Needham, the co-head of physiology at the English Institute of Sport and senior physiologist with British Triathlon, said British athletes had already factored in high levels of heat to their preparation for the 2016 Games in Rio, so they are aware of many of the challenges.

“We began to think about our focuses and themes for the Tokyo cycle so that we knew the challenges we’d face with the climate.”

“The tipping point comes in endurance sports where thermo-regulation, the body’s ability to deal with the heat generated during exercise, becomes more difficult as the race goes on,” she told sports publication Leaders In Sport.

Hottest previous Olympics, measured by both mean high temperature each day over the month the games took place, and the average overall temperature over the month the games took place:

Year    Location            Mean High Temp (C)    Mean Temp (C)

2004  Athens, Greece             34                              29

1996  Atlanta, USA                 32                              27

1904  Atlanta, USA                 31                              26

2008  Beijing, China               30                              26

1932  Los Angeles, USA        29                              24

1984  Los Angeles, USA        29                              24

1992  Barcelona, Spain         29                               24

1960 Rome, Italy                    27                              21

1988 Seoul, South Korea   26                              21

2016 Rio, Brazil                      26                              22


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