A heat wave in Japan that has killed more than a dozen people is reviving concerns about the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which is to be held during the nation’s notoriously hot summer.
While the Games have been held in places that are hotter or more humid, Japan’s summers offer both blistering heat and smothering humidity.
Olympic officials and Tokyo are touting measures from solar-blocking paint to mobile misting stations to tackle the heat.
However, some experts fear that the efforts are insufficient in a nation where summer heat kills hundreds of people and hospitalizes tens of thousands each year.
The Games are to be held from July 24 to Aug. 9, a period during which temperatures can hit 37°C and humidity can rise to more than 80 percent.
“Compared to past Olympics, it’s fair to say that this will be the most severe Games, as far as heat conditions go,” University of Tokyo professor of urban engineering Makoto Yokohari said.
The International Olympic Committee has approved moving the marathon start to 7am, with the men’s competitive walking beginning even earlier, and Tetsuo Egawa, senior director of operation strategy planning for Tokyo 2020’s organizing committee, is working on other ways to beat the heat.
“The sports that tend to raise the most concern are the non-stadium ones,” he said, citing the marathon, sailing, canoeing and golf as examples for which “special measures” would be needed.
The main concern is heatstroke, particularly among spectators not used to hot weather who are to spend hours outdoors watching events or queuing.
“We will have tents covering queues at security gates ... [and] we are aiming to limit lines to 20 minutes long,” Egawa said.
Large fans would cool people down and the new national stadium has been constructed to encourage air flow. Medical tents and rest areas would be air-conditioned.
Stress can increase the risk of heatstroke, so organizers will try to keep spectators relaxed.
“There may be small shows and entertainment ... maybe shows that involve spraying mist on people,” Egawa said.
Summer heat is hardly new for Tokyo, which experiences the “heat island” effect in which urban areas are much warmer than surrounding regions, for reasons including blocked airflow and lack of greenery.
Local officials say Tokyo’s temperature has risen by 3°C in the past century, far more than the global rise of 0.7°C to 0.8°C.
Tokyo has been working on the problem for years, but efforts are increasing ahead of the Games.
One project aims to repopularize a Japanese tradition: uchimizu, or the sprinkling of water on the street to bring temperatures down.
Another is solar-blocking “paint,” which is to cover the entire marathon route, although only on the road, not pavements where spectators will stand.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials say the coating can reduce temperatures at road level by up to 8°C. In other places, they are laying road surface that can absorb rainwater, which evaporates when temperatures rise and cools the air.
Tokyo Road Management Bureau official Susumu Matsushima said 116km of road have already been treated, most of it with the solar-blocking coating.
“If you touch [the road] you can really feel the difference, especially on a sunny day,” he said.
However, not everyone is convinced, with some saying that when Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964, it was held in October to avoid the heat.
Yokohari has studied the marathon route and said that “athletes will run in very dangerous conditions,” particularly in the last quarter of the race, when they pass Tokyo’s Imperial Palace.
“I believe athletes will feel significant damage to their bodies in this phase,” he said. “There is absolutely no shade.”
While the marathon will start early, Yokohari would prefer to see the route itself altered so runners are in the shade in later stages.
He said plans to put in trees for shade are impractical with only two years to go, and even proposed moving the marathon to somewhere cooler in northern Japan.
“Unfortunately, the sense of urgency I feel is not shared by people concerned,” he said. “Tokyo residents may say: ‘Oh we know and are used to the heat’ ... but how many of us in Tokyo spend hours outdoors in the peak of August heat?”
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