Fainting, pollution, and heat stroke: How the climate crisis threatens the Tokyo Olympics

Each sport will feel the effects differently — but none will be immune, according to a new report

Friday 11 June 2021 14:43
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Rio passes Olympic torch to Tokyo

The upcoming Tokyo Olympics may have avoided the worst one of one crisis by postponing during the height of Covid, but there’s no escaping another existential threat: global heating.

The climate crisis will impact nearly every event at the games, which are being hosted in Tokyo, a city that’s already experiencing heating more acutely than most places on Earth, according to new report from BASIS, the British Association for Sustainable Sport.

“Nothing stirs up passion, motivation and fascination quite like sport,” former British Olympic marathoner Mara Yamauchi writes in the forward of the BASIS report. “In one way or another, most of us love it. But we risk potentially far-reaching consequences for sport as we know it if climate change continues apace.”

The far-reaching effects of the climate crisis by this point are well known—rising seas, shrinking ice caps, drastically altered weather and agriculture—but it will also pose very specific risks for the elite athletes in Tokyo.

Tokyo, a so-called “urban heat island,” has been warming three times faster than the rest of the world since 1900. Japan has faced multiple deadly heat waves between 2018 and 2020, which scientists warn “could not have happened” without global heating.

All of this means athletes are at a higher risk of heat stroke, exhaustion, dehydration, impaired cognitive function, and health effects from the mingling of Tokyo’s urban air pollution with a hotter climate. Paraolympic athletes, face a number of challenges as well, from greater heat exposure by being closer to the hot ground in a wheelchair, to skin problems on prosthetic limbs during extra hot weather.

Athletes have been sounding the alarm for a while now. There was triathlete Jonny Brownlee, who overheated at the finish line of the 2016 Triathlon World Series in Mexico and had to be helped across by his brother Alistair, who himself blacked out from heat at a race in 2010 in London.

“There will be a lot of matches, a lot of players: men, women, doubles, mixed doubles,” tennis star Novak Djokovic said in 2019. “All of that needs to be played within less than 10 days or so. It’s quite a challenge for the organisation to come up with the right schedule, I guess, where you avoid the biggest heat,  but how can you really do it? That’s the question. With heat, it is going to be very, very tough for players and for fans, for anybody who is in the stadium.”

But the 2021 Games bring the problem into new relief and show “an expression of the wider threat climate change poses to all of us,” according to BASIS founder Dr Russell Seymour.

“The science is clear, and the real-world impacts – worsening extremes of heat, drought, storms and flooding, and unprecedented levels of pollution – are increasingly the lived experience for millions,” he said. “Climate change is with us and, without deep and urgent action, it will get much worse. Even the deniers no longer deny it.”

There are mitigation strategies that could ease the threat to athletes, ranging from extra cooling breaks, misting fans for dressage horses, spraying down cycling courses with water, and rerouting or rescheduling races to avoid the worst of Japan’s summer heat.

But ultimately, the BASIS report concludes, those will not be enough to put a dent in the problem as a whole.

“Ultimately the biggest change involves the biggest challenge—to reduce the actions and causes that contribute to the increasing trend of rising temperatures and evermore unpredictable weather patterns,” its authors write.

Here, the International Olympic Committee has committed to a number of bold climate goals, though as with any major international institution, its climate agenda has its caveats.

The 2024 Games in Paris aim to be “carbon-positives,” with carbon offsets and other measures meant to more than balance out the carbon emissions that result from the games, though one wonders how the thousands of travelers converging on each Olympic host city factor into such analysis.

As for the corporate suppliers and sponsors of the game, who cumulatively emit more carbon than either the Olympics or its legions of fans, the plans are still comparatively gentle.

“Paris 2024 encourages its commercial partners and its suppliers to apply sustainability and carbon neutrality criteria for 100 per cent of Games purchases, as part of its responsible procurement strategy,” the IOC wrote in its announcement of the carbon-positive strategy.

If recent history is any guide, encouragement hasn’t been enough to stem the climate crisis.

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