SInce early 2020, the Tokyo Olympics have been inextricably linked with Covid-19. Even now, three months before the Games start, it is unclear whether Australia’s athletes will be vaccinated in time or, indeed, whether the Olympics could be canceled altogether. But long before the pandemic, Australian athletes, coaches and sports scientists had another health risk in mind. In the quest for gold, the extreme heat of Tokyo’s summer will pose as big an obstacle as the coronavirus.
The last time Tokyo hosted a Summer Games, in 1964, they were held in October. For good reason. The average high in July and August is around 30 ° C; on warmer days, the temperature can exceed 35 ° C. Every year, hundreds of Japanese die from heat-related causes and thousands more are hospitalized. Add in the humidity that follows the rainy season and Olympians can expect to stifle during the 2021 Games.
“It’s like sitting in a big sauna bath for two full months,” wrote Tokyo-based journalist Robert Whiting. in the Japan Times in 2014, arguing that holding the Summer Olympics would be dangerous. “The only places imaginable that are worse would be the games in, say, Death Valley, California or the Horn of Africa.”
But the Games continue with a mid-summer schedule, which begins on July 23, due in large part to the preferences of US media companies (which fund the International Olympic Committee with huge streaming fees). Faced with this scorching reality, Australian Olympic sports have spent the past two years preparing to triumph in the heat.
“Heat can have a huge impact on performance,” says Dr. Peta Maloney of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). “There is good evidence showing that for some sports heat can have an impact of up to 10-15% on performance results. That’s huge, that’s not just the difference between gold or bronze, but whether they end or not. “
Maloney is a member of the AIS Tokyo Heat Project, which has been working to develop research-based strategies to minimize the impact of heat. Australian Olympic athletes will have access to ice baths 24 hours a day, and the AIS expects to provide 500 liters of frozen slush to athletes every day. The Heat Project has also been working with sports to provide heat acclimatization opportunities in the Tokyo building. “That can be done passively, sitting in a sauna or spa, wearing extra clothes, or actively, like an athlete training in a heat chamber,” Maloney explains.
While outdoor sports are a particular focus for the Heat Project, Maloney says they are also concerned about “incidental exposure,” in the athlete’s village or while in transit to a competition venue, that affects performance. . “Our goal with this initiative is to make sure that all athletes who go to Tokyo are as prepared as possible for the conditions,” he says.
Cycling is a sport particularly vulnerable to conditions, as road racing and mountain biking involve long periods of sun. “The heat is going to be a big factor; we’re planning for the worst,” says Simon Jones, AusCycling’s director of performance. “We don’t want ‘heat’ to be the main word mentioned in the report.”
Australia’s road cycling team made numerous reconnaissance trips to Tokyo prior to Covid, and AusCycling is working closely with its athletes to maximize physical and mental preparedness. “There is no silver bullet, you have to prepare,” says Jones. “There is a physiological side, but just as important there is a mental side: the perception of heat and rhythm can make a big difference.”
The Paralympic Games also pose a particular challenge, given the greater impact of the heat on some para-athletes and the absence of extensive research on effective management strategies for particular disabilities. “Some para-athletes have deficiencies that affect their ability to thermoregulate,” says Maloney. “For example, an amputee athlete has a reduced skin surface to dissipate heat; an athlete with a spinal cord injury may have a poor response in sweating and blood flow. ”Maloney will travel to Tokyo for the Paralympic Games to work with para-athletes on the ground.
Nikolas Pender, an 18-year-old rower, knows very well the challenges that await athletes in Tokyo: Pender and his team competed in the 2019 Junior World Rowing Championships, held in Tokyo Harbor as a test of the Olympic course.
“It was between 30 and 40 degrees every day, very sticky and wet,” says Pender. “The rowers were breaking down at the end of their careers; Fortunately, there were quite a few paramedics on site. It is definitely a challenging race in those conditions. Even just sitting in that weather is exhausting. “
Local athletes will be heading to Tokyo from the middle of an Australian winter. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, athletes can only reach Japan five days before your event, which leaves little time to acclimatize. “We come from the middle of a winter in Sydney, training in 5C or 6C in the morning,” adds Pender. “It’s really hard to take that leap from racing in the dead of winter to mid-summer.”
But Jones, the head of AusCycling, is confident that the work done by his athletes and their staff will put them in a good position to succeed in the heat of Tokyo. “It all comes down to practice, they need to have been in that situation before,” he says. “The more you practice, the luckier you get.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism