Heat could make Tokyo Olympics 'the worst in history'

If anyone ever wondered whether you could stage an Olympics inside a steam bath, well, the upcoming Tokyo Games are about to provide a definitive answer.

Temperatures in the Japanese capital are expected to hover in at least the low to mid-90s (Fahrenheit) with dew points and humidity levels remaining above 70 and 88, respectively, for much of the Games. Those numbers can easily spike.

“It’s going to be uncomfortable,” Carl Parker, a storm specialist for the Weather Channel, told Yahoo Sports. Parker compared Tokyo’s midsummer weather to that of Houston or Miami. “It’s going to be hot every day and the dew point is going to be very high.”

That combination is unpleasant for the general public, dangerous for those with health risks and potentially negatively impactful for the world’s athletes who will come to compete during the region’s hottest time of year.

“The problem is not only the temperature but also the humidity as well,” Makoto Yokohari, an adviser to the Tokyo Organizing Committee told Reuters. “When you combine these two, Tokyo is the worst [Games] in history.”

It will certainly be the hottest in modern history. Welcome to the Summer Olympics with too much summer.

That it is hot and humid in Japan during the summer is not a surprise, of course.

In 1964, the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, the Games took place in October to avoid the brutal conditions. Since then, average temperatures in Tokyo have risen 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and the number of days hitting 95 or above have gone from 1 to 12, according to government figures. In both 2018 and 2020, it reached a record 106.

TOKYO, JAPAN  JULY 16, 2021: Locals stand at a bus stop spraying air cooling mist. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
Locals stand at a bus stop spraying air-cooling mist. (Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

And Tokyo isn’t alone in dealing with this issue. Both the 1968 (Mexico City) and 1988 (Seoul, South Korea) Games were moved to September and early October, respectively, to beat the heat.

All of which begs a question: Why hold the Olympic Games in the heart of the summer this time — July 23-Aug. 8?

Well, a lot of people blame NBC (as well as other broadcasters around the world), which have historically drawn higher ratings for midsummer broadcasts that occur prior to the start of the school year and the NFL season.

“It’s essentially driven by American television,” Dick Pound, a Canadian Olympic committee member and former chair of television negotiations for the International Olympic Committee, told The New York Times.

NBC has long denied being a deciding factor. However, as much as two-thirds of the International Olympic Committee’s budget comes from global television rights deals and about half of that comes from the American network, which is in the midst of a $7.75 billion deal to broadcast the Summer and Winter Games through 2032.

NBC notes that it plays no official role in the selection of where or when the Olympics will take place and points to its contract with the IOC which was agreed to in 2014, well before the selection process for host sites after 2022.

Of course, NBC, or broadcast partners from other countries, don’t necessarily have to say anything for its interests to be considered.

This is the IOC; money always talks. It can’t be coincidental that the official bidding process for host cities notes that the Summer Games should be held between July 15 and Aug. 31 unless the IOC grants a waiver due to “exceptional circumstances.”

The issue dates back to the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, which began Sept. 15 and produced the lowest television ratings in America since the Games became a huge broadcast event in the 1980s.

NBC’s prime-time average from Sydney was a 13.8 rating, down from an average of 18.9 from the three previous Summer Games. The next four Summer Olympics began in either late July or early-to-mid August and delivered higher ratings — Athens (15), Beijing (16.2), London (17.5) and Rio de Janeiro (14.4).

Doha, Qatar, made an initial bid to host the 2020 Games and proposed an October start date to avoid the searing heat of summer in the Middle East. It was eliminated early in the process and the IOC concluded in a report:

“In October, broadcasters would face lower viewership rating levels on a global level when having to compete with other major sports events or general entertainment/TV programming priorities for the autumn season. Significantly less Olympic broadcast [ratings] would also result in lower exposure and impact commercial opportunities.”

So midsummer it is — including the next two in Paris (2024) and Los Angeles (2028) and the expected 2032 site of Brisbane, Australia, where it will be winter.

As for Tokyo, the conditions over the next few weeks could be problematic, especially for track, cycling, beach volleyball and other outdoor events.

“At these levels athletes are really energized and they start to sweat,” Parker of the Weather Channel said. “The body uses evaporation to cool itself off, but that’s not nearly as effective which is why it perspires even more.”

In 2018, a heat wave in Japan caused over 1,000 deaths nationwide. If that is duplicated again, Parker says more events would have to be moved to early morning or even canceled.

“It would be very hard to have business as usual,” Parker said.

The Japanese are just hoping it won’t get to that. In their official bid, they inaccurately promised the weather would be “mild” and “an ideal climate.” It worked, but it wasn’t true then … or now.

After winning the bid, the Japanese have tried to mitigate the heat, such as moving the marathon and race walking events to morning and staging them in the cooler, northern part of the country. Even out-of-the-box ideas were considered — everything from an Olympics-only daylight savings time to encouraging businesses and offices in the city to leave doors open to let air conditioning out.

Neither of those will be employed because heat and humidity can never truly be tamed.

So can you run an Olympics in these kinds of conditions? We’re about to find out one sweltering day at a time.

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