Tomorrow marks the two-year countdown to the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But Japanese officials are not celebrating. They are seriously concerned. The country – like many parts of the world – is in the middle of an intense, brutal heat wave.
Over the weekend, in the city of Kumagaya, the temperature was recorded at 41.1 degrees C (105.98 degrees F), the highest ever on record in Japan. This is twelve degrees hotter than normal. And the heat-wave is taking a toll. According to CNN, “at least 44 people have died since July 9, with 11 dying on Saturday alone.”
And you can’t play sport in that heat. As the local Kyodo News reported: “Among calls made to emergency services Saturday were those reporting junior high school and senior high school students falling ill while playing sport in Shizuoka and Ibaraki prefectures.”
It is not just people playing sport who are suffering. Everyday activities become nearly impossible in these temperatures. Indeed, yesterday, the Tokyo Fire Department had its busiest day since 1936 taking people to hospital with heat-related problems.
The online weather specialists AccuWeather predicted the heat-wave in Japan would continue all week, with “sweltering humidity” pushing the temperatures to what they feel like to “between 38 and 43 C (100 and 110 F) during the midday and afternoon hours.”
AccuWeather President and Founder Dr. Joel Myers also said in a statement earlier today that the death-toll from the heatwave will be significantly higher than official estimates: “the Japan heat wave is likely already in the hundreds despite the official toll of somewhat more than two dozen, and we predict the number will climb into the thousands before the heat wave ends,” he said.
As thousands potentially die in the shadows, Japan will host several public events this week to mark the two-year count-down. The authorities over the weekend unveiled “Miraitowa” and “Someity” the Olympic mascots who are meant to build a global buzz for the games over the next two years.
But as The Guardian reports this morning, how can you participate in elite sport such as the Olympics in this heat?
Yuriko Koike, the Tokyo governor, says that the last few days had been “like living in the sauna” and that dealing with the heat issue was “indeed one pillar for the success of the 2020 Games.”
The authorities are now concerned “over the risk of heatstroke” for Olympians. One of those raising this issue is Makoto Yokohari, a University of Tokyo professor, who has made the link between climate change and heat stress. He argues that the authorities are not doing enough.
In a recent academic paper he stated: “In recent years, temperatures have risen in the world’s major cities due to both climate change and the urban heat island effect, as caused by the increased longwave radiation from road and building surfaces. These factors have led to an intensification of health hazards posed by heat stress,” which is expected to be a “significant issue at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.”
The bottom line he says, is that “In the outdoor sporting events, heat is expected to impact athletic ability.”
And nowhere is there greater concern over heat stress than running the marathon. Although the authorities have now moved the start time for the marathon even earlier than normal, he said that this is not sufficient to protect athletes.
Indeed, will the Olympics of the future be held at night or only in countries in colder climates? But countries that are relatively “cool” in summer are getting harder find. Last month was the fifth hottest June on record, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All 10 warmest Junes have occurred since 2005. And it is worth remembering that it is not just Japan that is sweltering: Much of the northern hemisphere has been experiencing a searing temperatures and drought.
As the New York Mag noted over the weekend, “Meanwhile, in Sweden, the Arctic Circle is on fire. High temperatures and a prolonged drought have caused 49 fires to ignite across Sweden, with temperatures reaching 90 degrees F as far north as the Arctic Circle this week.” The country even had to ask for help to tackle the fires.
The NY Magazine article added: “It’s impossible to talk about these extreme temperatures without talking about climate change.”
It is time the Olympics woke up to climate change too. The Olympic committee could also use the fact it will have a global audience to argue that we must do more to tackle the problem.