Japan's Olympic organizers lied about its weather, and now athletes are paying the price

·Columnist
·5 min read

TOKYO — The finish line of the men’s triathlon Monday morning looked something like a battlefield scene, bodies sprawled out on ground, trainers coming to the aid of overheated athletes, even a few being helped off with their arms draped over shoulders.

This despite the Olympics moving the start time to 6:30 a.m. in an effort to beat the heat that, as these Tokyo Games have proven, remains undefeated. Temps still reached 85 degrees with a relative humidity of 67.1 percent at start time.

No, the Japanese don’t have to apologize for the weather here — the searing sun, the sky high temps, the pea-soup humidity. No one tells Mother Nature what to do.

But as athletes continue to wilt and wither in these conditions, they do owe everyone an apology for this much: They lied like hell about it.

“With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform their best.”

This quote comes from Japan’s official proposal to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Mild? Ideal? Here in Tokyo in July?

“I wasn’t enjoying it at all,” Russian tennis player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova said after competing Saturday in conditions that have caused everyone from archers, to volunteers to officials to faint.

Daytime temps have hit the mid to upper 90s, with dew points in the mid-70s, a mix that assures triple digit heat indexes. This is a tropical location. Venues such as tennis, beach volleyball, cycling and others are open and exposed.

The scene at the finish line of the men's triathlon looked like a battlefield, with athletes seemingly overcome by the intense heat in Tokyo.
The scene at the finish line of the men's triathlon looked like a battlefield, with athletes seemingly overcome by the intense heat in Tokyo.

“Playing in extreme heat and humidity, it’s very challenging,” said Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic. “It’s something we’ve known coming into Tokyo, we heard and expected the conditions would be very tough, but before you come here and experience that, you don’t really know how difficult it is.”

These are, literally, the finest athletes in the world. When they say it’s difficult, it’s difficult. So why did the Japanese claim otherwise? And why did the International Olympic Committee, in granting the bid without comment about the conditions to come, just let them say it?

“Meteorological conditions during the proposed Games-time would be reasonable,” Japan’s proposal promised.

Every athlete has to deal with the same situation, so it’s not fair to say it’s unfair. However, when you’ve trained your entire life to compete in the Olympics, you probably expect a situation that might optimize performance, not punish it.

Japan knew it was lying. They live here. Not a single resident of Tokyo would describe mid-summer here as “mild” or “ideal.” In 2014, soon after the city was awarded the bid, a column in Japan Times wondered how in the world this was going to even work.

“I have been to Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Singapore in mid-summer and in my experience Tokyo is the worst of them all,” author Robert Whiting wrote. “The only conceivable places that are worse would be staging the games in, say, Death Valley, California, or the Horn of Africa.”

Death Valley 2036? Don’t give the IOC any ideas.

Heat wave hits Tokyo Olympics slideshow embed
Heat wave hits Tokyo Olympics slideshow embed

Tokyo is, depending how you measure it, the largest city in the world, with a metro population of over 34 million. It is modern, friendly, beautiful and clean. It’s an incredible place. Except for this time of year.

And they knew it, but claimed otherwise anyway, even boasting they’d provide a place “where athletes can perform at their best.”

The last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Games was 1964. It was held in October to avoid just these kinds of conditions. That made sense.

Well, Japan is 3.6 degrees warmer now on average, per government figures. The number of days hitting 95 or above have gone from an average of one per year to 12. In both 2018 and 2020, it reached a record 106, part of heat waves that saw hundreds pass away.

The good news so far is it hasn’t gotten that bad.

“It would be very hard to have business as usual,” said Carl Parker, a storm specialist for the Weather Channel. “At these levels, athletes are really energized and they start to sweat. The body uses evaporation to cool itself off, but that’s not nearly as effective which is why it perspires even more.”

The Summer Games start between mid-July and late-August now because these months produce far higher television ratings around much of the world. That’s especially true in the United States, when NBC doesn’t have to compete with the NFL, college football, the start of the school year or much else.

Since money always talks with the IOC, here we are. Athlete concerns might have mattered back in 1964. That was then. This is billions.

So Japan put out a bid with a farcical vision of idyllic summer days, like a soft breeze through Northern Wisconsin. And the IOC just pretended not to notice and nodded right along with it.

“What [is] the penalty, if any, for false advertising,” the Japan Times wondered almost a decade ago.

Whatever it is, it appears it’s the athletes who are paying it.

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