fitness · Olympics

Too hot for the summer Olympics? Comments on climate and commerce

This year’s Olympics in Tokyo was hot. Yes, it was exciting too, but I’m talking about temperature. The daily high temperatures were  between 29-33C (84-91F) every day since they started on 23 July, said one news source. Add to that high humidity, and of course there will be effects on athletes. From archery to rowing, Olympians experienced physical distress– so much so that some left their fields of competition in stretchers or wheelchairs.

The first notable casualty of the heat was Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva, who collapsed while checking her scores. She had tried to prepare for the climate by training in Vladivostock, a Russian city just 1,000 km from Japan. But her coach told reporters: “She couldn’t stand a whole day out in the heat”.

By “standing”, they meant literally standing:

“If you stand up in a warm environment for a long period of time and you’re sweating and you’re becoming dehydrated and the blood flow to the skin is going up and up and up, you can have a fairly drastic fall in blood pressure and that’s seen with people getting light-headed and feeling faint,” [said Mike Tipton, a professor in Human and Applied Physiology at the University of Portsmouth who helped the UK’s triathlon team prepare for the heat.]

In fact, he said, standing still can make the problem worse because contracting your leg muscles as you move helps maintain blood pressure and blood flow back to heart.

There were many other cases of heat-related illness, but I bring up this one to emphasize how important environment is to athletic activity. The heat doesn’t just keep us from competing and doing our best; it can keep us from doing anything outside for an extended period of time.

The Lancet published a commentary in 2016 with predictions on what northern hemisphere cities could host the summer Olympics in 2085. Here’s what they came up with:

Global map showing low-medium-high risk cities for hosting 2085 Olympics. Only eight of them are outside western Europe.
Global map showing low-medium-high risk cities for hosting 2085 Olympics. Only eight of them are outside western Europe.

The researchers focused on the northern hemisphere only in this study. Their results are sobering– many of the locations of former Olympic Games will no longer (in fact, are no longer now) viable for intense outdoor competition in summer.

Here’s a thought: why not hold the summer Olympics in the fall instead? Turns out, some people have already thought of this (and written about it):

Tipton says the Tokyo Olympics should have been held in the Autumn, as they were in Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico City in 1968. “It might well be that we start to think of it being the Autumn Olympics because of climate change,” he said.

But TV broadcasters are resistant, particularly in the US, where the autumn already has a packed sporting schedule. The NFL American Football season typically starts in September and the NBA basketball and NHL hockey seasons start in October.

Neal Pilson, former President of the US-based CBS Sports television channel told Reuters in 2018: “The Summer Olympics are simply of less value if held in October because of pre-existing programme commitments for sports…the IOC is well aware of American network preferences for the timing of the Summer and Winter games”.

Given global climate change, a summer Olympics is increasingly looking like a “having cake and eating it too” situation. By this I mean that we are faced with a choice: either we can have an international athletic competition at the time that corporations and media entities prefer, OR we can have that competition at a time and place that’s conducive to optimal athletic performance. Climate change is forcing our hand: we can’t, it seems, have both anymore.

For me, the answer is easy: have the Olympics at a time and place that promotes health and performance for athletes.

Of course, there are so so many other climate-change related questions, not the least of which is: should we even still host such a carbon-intensive event? I’m not weighing in on that here. I need to do my homework first. But it’s certainly clear that we are increasingly having to change our behaviors and activities due to climate change. This includes recreation.

Readers, do you think the Summer Olympic Games would be just as good as the Autumn Olympic Games? I’d love to hear any thoughts you have.