The latest in a string of BASIS reports examining the impact of climate change on sport looks at extreme heat and the Tokyo Olympics.
Covid-19 isn’t the only danger at the Tokyo Olympics. Climate change is adding another risk as intense heat and high humidity threaten the health and performance of athletes, according to a U.K.-based association.
Athletes are increasingly being asked to compete in environments that are becoming “too hostile” for the human body, the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) said in a report released Wednesday titled “Rings of Fire: How Heat Could Impact the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.”
The impact is likely to be felt this summer in Japan, which has experienced record-breaking heat waves in recent years. Tokyo’s mean temperature has climbed by 2.86 degrees Celsius since 1900, more than three times as fast as the world’s average, the report said.
“The message is clear — the number of situations in which we are exposing athletes and competitors to extreme risk, at all levels of sport, continues to grow as climate change intensifies,” said Russel Seymour, founder and chief executive of BASIS. “Athletes can race against time and each other, but they cannot be expected to outrun climate change.”
The BASIS climate report comes as the Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by a year, is facing increased pressure because of the pandemic. Japan is under another state of emergency amid a resurgence of virus cases, prompting top business leaders to call for the Olympics to be postponed again or scrapped altogether.
Japan can get dangerously hot in the summer. A heat wave saw temperature surge to a record 41 degrees Celsius (105.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Tokyo’s neighboring Saitama prefecture in 2018, causing thousands to fall ill with heat stroke. Each year has more days when the maximum daily temperature exceeds 35 degrees Celsius, especially since the 1990s, the report said.
Temperatures in the Japanese capital are forecast to average between 26.3 and 27.4 degrees Celsius in August, reaching a high of 39.1 degrees Celsius on Aug. 3. That compares with an average of 11.1 degrees for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, which took place in October, according to BASIS. And it would place the city among only a handful of Olympic hosts with temperatures higher than 25 degrees: Beijing (2008), Athens (2004) and Atlanta (1996).
With the Games scheduled to take place between July 23 and Aug. 8, some events including the marathon and road cycling have been shifted to cooler places near Sapporo and Mount Fuji.
The BASIS study recommended measures be put in place across different sports and events to mitigate the risk of illnesses including heat stroke. They include more-developed guidelines for when events should be changed or canceled due to weather, improved education about heat illness, additional cooling breaks and heightening medical provisions.
Certainly, the threat from warmer temperatures isn’t exclusive to Tokyo and the Olympics. Adverse weather conditions, driven by the changing climate, have been a growing concern for athletes and those hosting international sporting events in recent years.
Extreme heat has repeatedly taken a toll at the Australian Open tennis tournament in recent years, with players collapsing as temperatures topped 40 degrees Celsius. During the 2019 World Athletics Championship in Doha, Qatar, only 40 of 68 runners finished the women’s marathon, despite the race being moved to midnight to avoid searing daytime heat.
Winter sports aren’t immune from climate change. A 2018 study led by the University of Waterloo said only eight of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to host the games by the end of this century.
“If current trends continue, more sports, more events and more athletes, referees and spectators will be exposed to more extreme weather conditions,” the BASIS report said.