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TOKYO – The world’s top athletes have struggled to cope with Tokyo’s blazing humid summer, prompting experts to warn that the heat factor cannot be underestimated in the planning of future sporting meets in a fast-warming planet.

The heat and humidity have been major hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics, with athletes turning to popsicles, ice cream, mist sprays and cooling vests to keep cool. The brutal weather has also taken its toll on the public. 

Data from the Fire and Disaster Management Agency show that 20,963 people were sent to hospital for heat-related illnesses throughout Japan last month . This was two-and-a-half times the 8,388 people in the same month last year.

Adults have reportedly collapsed from heat exhaustion on the bustling streets of Shibuya to the agricultural plains of Kyushu. Japan is mourning the untimely death last week of five-year-old Toma Kurakake in Fukuoka, after he was left on the school bus by his principal for an entire day.

All these incidents occurred as the mercury soared in recent weeks. Even with natural variance in weather conditions in different years, the norm has been for summers to be hotter, longer and arriving earlier than usual.

University of Tokyo climatologist Hisashi Nakamura told The Straits Times that mean summer temperatures in Japan have climbed by about 1 deg C since the early 1980s, thus increasing the odds of extreme high temperatures.

Another report, by the British Association for Sustainable Sport, showed Tokyo’s mean temperature has risen by 2.86 deg C since 1900, or about three times higher than the global average of 0.96 deg C.

Thursday (Aug 5) was the hottest day in Japan this year. Heatstroke alerts were issued in wide areas as 242 out of the Japan Meteorological Agency’s 919 monitoring stations clocked temperatures of 35 deg C and above.

Tokyo hit 34.7 deg C, the hottest it has been in the capital thus far this year.

Although the Olympic marathon and race-walk events were shifted to Sapporo in the chase for cooler climes, the northern city hit 35 deg C last month for the first time this century. Forecasts expect temperatures up to 33 deg C on Friday (Aug 6).

Dr Nakamura described Tokyo’s scorching heat as “above normal”, though it is Sapporo that is being blanketed by a concerning heatwave with daytime highs as much as 7 deg C above the norm.

He attributed the warming to climate change, adding that this was being exacerbated by a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island” effect.

“High humidity enhances the risk of dehydration and heatstroke, especially during daytime outdoor activity,” he added.

URBAN HEAT ISLAND

Tokyo’s summers had been somewhat cooler in the 1960s, but the Summer Games in 1964 were still deliberately held in early autumn in October with the city enjoying balmy daytime temperatures of about 20 deg C.

Rapid development in the five decades since then would have exacerbated the so-called “urban heat island” effect by which trapped heat is unable to dissipate, thus resulting in metropolitan areas feeling markedly hotter.

This phenomenon stems from the build-up in urbanisation such as through the use of concrete and asphalt, as well as the increased density of human activities that produce waste heat, such as air-conditioning or traffic, Singapore Management University(SMU) climate scientist Winston Chow said.

“This localised warmer urban temperatures are on top of higher long-term regional temperatures caused by climate change,” he noted. “This can exacerbate heat risks to its residents and visiting athletes who take part outdoors – especially visitors who are not fully acclimatised to Tokyo’s summer heat.”

The trend, however, directly contradicts Tokyo’s claims when it bid for the Games, promising “many days of mild and sunny weather (that would offer) an ideal climate for athletes to perform their best”.

Now, many competitors including from tropical regions have said that Tokyo has been the most punishing experience in their careers.

Brazilian beach volleyball player Bruno Schmidt said the Tokyo Games has been much hotter and more humid than he expected. “The first two weeks here were one of the hottest that I had in my life, believe it or not.”

World No 2 tennis player Daniil Medvedev of Russia asked who would take responsibility if he died during his match.

“I couldn’t breathe properly,” he told reporters. “I had darkness in my eyes like between every point. I didn’t know what to do to feel better. Like, I was bending over, but I couldn’t get my breath together.”

This has prompted tennis games to be rescheduled while on Thursday (Aug 5), organisers announced a delay of Friday’s women’s football final between Sweden and Canada from 11am to 9pm due to complaints over the midday heat.

A volunteer at Ariake Tennis Park told Kyodo News that she found it “disrespectful” that athletes were made to play under such conditions. She said: “I think none of the athletes will think about playing in Tokyo in the future.”

WHAT NEXT?

Tokyo has long recognised the problem and tapped technology such as solar heat-blocking pavements to reduce road surface temperatures.

Olympic organisers have also prepared ice baths, mist sprays, and added water points to ensure athletes stay cool and well-hydrated.

“This is something we need to be vigilant about,” Tokyo 2020 chief executive officer Toshiro Muto said on Sunday amid athlete complaints and reports that dozens of volunteers had suffered heat-related ailments.

But Tokyo 2020 will likely serve as a model for future summer events – possibly as soon as Paris in three years. A record heatwave that swept the French capital in 2019 led to temperatures as high as 46 deg C that killed 1,500 people.

“The warming trend will continue over decades, which further increases the likelihood of extreme high temperatures,” Dr Nakamura said.

The International Olympic Committee, in response to queries from The Straits Times, said that “flexibility and adaption to the consequences of climate change” will be taken into account when planning future events.

Yet, besides taking ad hoc measures, SMU’s Dr Chow said: “There’s not much else that can be done apart from holding the Games during a cooler period or moving them to a cooler location”.

“Planning for athletes’ heat acclimatisation and adaptation has to be accounted for,” he said, adding that one prime example was the World Cup in Qatar next year that will be held from Nov 21 to Dec 18.

This will be the first tournament in the competition’s history to avoid the summer months of June or July.

Still, experts say there is a silver lining behind the ban on spectators due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The decision will likely have protected millions of unacclimatised spectators from extreme heat.

“One thing to consider is that reducing risks should not just be for athletes but also for visiting spectators attending the event,” Dr Chow said. “A good, well-planned major sporting event also considers that spectators could be at greater risk of heat injuries and they have to be accounted for.”

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