Virtually very aspect of life is affected by climate change, with Olympic sports and the Tokyo Summer Olympics being no exceptions.
GreenSportsBlog asked seven Olympians/Paralympians — and EcoAthletes Champions — who are either taking part in Tokyo 2020 and/or participated in prior Games, from seven different sports, to get their takes on how climate change is impacting their sports.
Mara Abbott, road cycling, USA (Rio 2016)
Cycling is a sport that faces the elements – proudly! Mud, snow, rain and baking sun are a part of showing up.
Yet it’s difficult to imagine a future in which cycling, competitive or otherwise, won’t have to change. Eight years ago, we lost every canyon road in my hometown to a flood! Those events are becoming and will continue to become more common. Allergy season will extend and intensify — this is critically significant for a number of riders. Heat waves will begin to move some road races from uncomfortable to dangerous.
It’s possible to race in extreme heat – we’ve had world championships in Qatar. But for the people without a follow car filled with ice socks, those who are beginning to love cycling, and those who don’t know yet that they might, a sport utterly exposed to the elements is going to be impacted.
Of course basketball at the professional level is mainly an indoor sport so the impacts of climate change are not always so obvious.
But before the pandemic, in October or November 2019, Team USA traveled to Qatar for a tournament and we played a game outside, and we needed to walk about a mile to get to the venue. How can I describe it? It was so blazing hot, I felt like I couldn’t breathe! I’ve never experienced anything like that; I thought I was going to die! And I generally like the heat. But this was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. This was not normal.
It’s sad to say but I am really glad I don’t play a sport that is played outside.
Napheesa Collier (Photo credit: Minnesota Lynx/WNBA)
Rhydian Cowley, race walking, Australia (Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020)
The Olympic walks and marathons were moved from Tokyo 800km north to the city of Sapporo specifically to reduce extreme heat risks. Tokyo has had many heat waves during July/August in past years, including during test events in 2018 and 2019. Combined with high humidity common in the Tokyo summer, the heat creates a great potential health risk for athletes and spectators.
In fact, Yusuke Suzuki of Japan, the reigning 50km walk world champion, cited poor recovery from the hot, humid conditions faced in Doha 2019 World Championships as a reason for his withdrawal from Tokyo. And Eugene, Oregon, which will host the 2022 World Athletics Championships, just experienced — along with the entire Pacific Northwest — massive heat during the US Olympic trials which led to scheduling changes.
Rhydian Cowley (Photo credit: Athletics Australia)
I have been preparing for expected conditions with many cooling and hydration strategies — Sapporo could still get hot and humid, even if a little less so than Tokyo. I have also been utilizing a heat chamber this year to get used to walking in hot and humid conditions during the Australian winter.
Combining all of these interventions is tricky and requires a lot of expertise from dieticians and sport physiologists. More casual athletes are much less able to adapt due to lack of knowledge and resources. Athletes from poorer countries also lack the resources to prepare adequately and safely.
Marcus Daniell, tennis, New Zealand (Rio 2016, Tokyo 2020)
Regarding how tennis is being impact by climate change, the most tangible and scary examples I can think of are the bushfires in Australia. In early 2020, I was supposed to travel to Australia to play in a lead-up event to the Australian Open. A few days before the event was due to start, we received an email saying that the air quality in the area was extremely poor due to wide-ranging bushfires. The bushfires were massive, and were devastating huge swaths of Australian land, along with the animals and people who lived there.
The players who were already there preparing for the event were complaining of sore lungs and were struggling for air. My doubles partner had a two-month old baby, and said there was no chance he was taking his family in to that environment.
The skies over Melbourne were a thick gray during the 2020 Australian Open qualifying tournament thanks to smoke wafting in from nearby bushfires (Photo credit: Twitter)
We skipped the event, but still felt and saw the effects ten days later during the Australian Open in Melbourne. Our lungs were sore and we were hundreds of kilometers from the fires themselves. This experience opened my eyes to the immediacy and danger of climate change. Bushfires are part of nature’s cycle, but bushfires that big are nature’s complaints against horrible treatment by humans.
Marcus Daniell (Photo credit: Marcus Daniell)
Bridget Franek, steeplechase, USA (London 2012)
Over the past few years, there have been more and more events in track and field that have run into issues with extreme heat. At the highest level a few specifically come to mind — the Doha World Championships in 2019 and the past few U.S. Olympic Trials and National Championships.
Just this year at the U.S. Olympic Trials, events were moved around and the entire schedule was pushed back due to an unprecedented heat wave in temperate Eugene, OR, of all places!
Bridget Franek (Photo credit: USA Track & Field)
Even as far back as I can remember, heat has been an issue due to the time of year the major track meets take place and the cities were chosen to host the events. U.S. Championships in Indiana in June/July were always very hot and humid and U.S. Championships in Sacramento, CA were always very hot and dry. Despite the heat however, it was rare that the sport organization hosting the event would alter the schedule once it was set.
However lately, I am noticing more and more that the organizing organizations are trying to take extreme weather, especially heat, into account during the planning of their events and are being more accommodating with schedule changes if/when the forecast requires it. When Doha won the bid to host the World Championships, they pushed the event back more than a month to accommodate. Obviously, this was a better solution for the competitors than making them compete in extreme heat however, it poses another challenge for them as they try to prepare.
Because of the schedule change, all other meets leading up to that Championships had to be adjusted and the yearly training rhythm that the athletes rely on from one year to the next had to be completely revised, not only the year leading up but also the following year.
No matter how you cut it, extreme heat is definitely becoming more and more of an issue for professional athletes training and competing at the highest level of sports.
Joie Leigh, field hockey, Great Britain (Rio 2016)
I feel like there are a couple of different examples which illustrate how weather events, expected to become more frequent with climate change, have impacted hockey.
Firstly, playing in extreme heat, in places such as Australia is definitely something I think of. As we well know heat makes it a lot harder to play in – and there is also the issue of pumping loads of water onto a water-based hockey pitch in the middle of a drought.
Joie Leigh (Photo credit: GB Hockey)
Secondly a little closer to home, last year and on a few previous occasions, the pitch of a hockey club I have played at in the past flooded. This unsurprisingly ruined the pitch and adjacent tennis courts with all the dirty water and debris. Obviously this had some pretty challenging financial implications for the club. With flash floods likely to get more likely with increasing intensity of rainfall events – I’m sure this will happen to more clubs.
Alexandra Rickham, paralympic sailing, Great Britain (London 2012, Rio 2016)
Alexandra Rickham on the medal stand at Rio 2016 (Photo credit: Team GB)
GSB’s Take: I would like to amplify on Rhydian Cowley’s point about the common and oppressive heat waves in Tokyo during July and August. One way the IOC and the organizers of Tokyo 2020 could have minimized the impact of climate change would’ve been to schedule the Games for October, when the temperatures are much cooler, instead of July-August. There is precedent for such action: The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October.
But with the TV networks that largely underwrite the Games having significant influence, an October Olympics would mean that the Games would have to go up against both American football and global soccer. Which means ratings would suffer. So, now the athletes of the world suffer instead due to the extreme heat of the Tokyo summer