COVID was the all-encompassing off-field story heading into the just-completed Tokyo Olympics: Postponed by a year, no spectators, and more. But while some athletes were unable to compete after testing positive, things ran fairly well from a coronavirus perspective.
Looking ahead to Paris 2024, LA 2028 and beyond, the bigger problem in a post-COVID world for Summer (and, to a lesser extent, Winter) Olympic athletes, organizers and fans is extreme, sweltering, dangerous heat and its unwelcome cousin, humidity. Tokyo 2020 will likely be the hottest Summer Games on record. Local organizers took some steps to lessen the impacts of the blistering heat — for example, moving the marathons and the race walks to Sapporo, 500 miles north of Tokyo (although it was bloody hot there, too) — but the impact of those efforts was minimal.
The athletes’ highly visible suffering all the way through Sunday’s closing ceremonies, followed by the release on Monday of the devastating IPCC climate report, raised serious questions about the future of the Summer Games in our increasingly hotter world.
Thankfully, the mainstream media, which has largely ignored Green-Sports, began to pick up on the extreme heat-climate change Olympics story. Below are four examples.
How the Climate Crisis has Taken Centre Stage at one of the Hottest Olympics on Record, by Marthe de Ferrer, EuroNews
De Ferrer asked the questions that needed to be asked about the Extreme Heat Games:
- How did the heat affect the athletes at the Tokyo Olympics? Answer: A LOT!
- Is Tokyo normally this hot? Answer: Yes, and it’s been getting hotter. She cited the 2018 heatwave during which temperatures soared to 105F and over 1,000 people died.
- Is Tokyo the hottest Olympics on record? de Ferrer’s story was posted during the Games’ midpoint so the answer was not in yet, but the first week of data showed that “it certainly looks to be going that way.”
When Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964, the Games took place during much more temperate October. Why didn’t they do the same this time, especially with climate change making the summer even more unbearable in Japan’s capital city?
According to de Ferrer, it all has to do with money: “The International Olympic Committee requires that the Olympics be held between 15 July – 31 August…The last time the Games were held outside this period was 2000, in Sydney. These Olympics had some of the lowest television [ratings] since the 1980s. July-August is one of the only times of year where football isn’t dominating television screens across Europe, and American football doesn’t have the same monopoly in the US.”
How Tokyo Olympics Could Affect Climate Change, Julia Jacobo, ABC News
Jacobo flipped the climate-change-impacts-sports script when she asked whether the decrease in emissions from flights — thanks to the COVID-inspired ban on spectators — makes a difference. The short answer, according to the experts with whom she consulted, is no:
Per Phillip Duffy, climate scientist and president and executive director of the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, “Globally, the commercial aviation industry contributes approximately five percent of world’s climate-warming problem…And of the billions of international flights occurring every year, just a small fraction of them are going to the Olympics.”
Olympic Athletes Should Stand Up to the IOC, by Michael Rosenberg, Sports Illustrated
According to Rosenberg’s important article, Olympians competed in vicious conditions in Tokyo, thanks to the IOC.
“The IOC sent one athlete after another to compete in saunas. The heat index was 105 or higher here just about every day, creating conditions that seemed brutal to everyone except the IOC. Great Britain’s Jessica Judd collapsed after the 10,000-meter run. Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev told the chair umpire, ‘I can finish the match, but I can die.’ Then Spaniard Paula Badosa suffered heatstroke, defaulted, and left the court in a wheelchair—and only then did the IOC shift the start times, and only for tennis.”
Rosenberg says they have the power to change that dynamic at future Games, but that it won’t be easy…unless the stars step up:
“The IOC needs its broadcast partners. Those partners need stars. That means stars have power.”
“The evening before the women’s gold medal soccer match between Sweden and Canada, coaches for both teams said they had never considered boycotting the event. Whether they considered it or not, they should have. If Sweden and Canada had banded together and said they refused to play in 95-degree heat with 80 percent humidity, the IOC would have been forced to move the game earlier.”
Climate Change Raises Questions About Future of Summer Olympics, by Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times
You need to scroll down to the 11th article in the Times’ Olympics section to get to the story by Tabuchi, who normally writes for their “Climate Fwd:” team. She notes that the extreme heat of Tokyo will likely be the rule, not the exception for Summer Games going forward.
“Paris, the host of the 2024 Summer Games, has been hit with deadly heat waves in recent years. Los Angeles is set to host the 2028 games during the peak of wildfire season.”
Beyond that, Tabuchi cites a 2016 study from The Lancet that predicts that by 2085, “under a worst-case emissions scenario, where emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) aren’t brought under control in coming decades, just 33 of 645 major cities in the Northern Hemisphere would be able to host the Olympics in July and August in a climate safe for athletes.”
GSB’s Take: Stories about how extreme heat — exacerbated by climate change — impacted athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, gained more oxygen from mainstream media than ever before. That is a good thing.
But, as Monday’s alarming yet expected climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes, awareness is far from enough. Commenting on the IPCC’s findings, climate scientist and EcoAthletes advisory board member Dr. Michael Mann perhaps said it best: “We have ZERO years left to avoid climate change, it’s here.”
He also offered this dollop of hope: “We can prevent the worst impacts (e.g. multiple meters of sea level rise) through bold action in the years ahead. The crucial message going into COP 26 [the global climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland this November].”
To heed Dr. Mann’s “bold action” clarion call, the sports world needs to have a voice at COP 26 and beyond.
More athletes need to join the #ClimateComeback choir to help mobilize legions of fans to take and demand climate-action. And the Grand Poobahs of sports, from team owners to league commissioners to mega-event chairmen to media moguls, and more, must go beyond the comfortable when it comes to climate.
That means that they must use their sizable political clout to support those politicians who favor and enact equitable decarbonization policies.
To paraphrase Michael Mann, we have ZERO years to wait.
Photo at Top: Jessica Judd of Great Britain (foreground) and Lucia Rodriguez of Spain collapse after their Olympic 10,000 meter heat in Tokyo. The heat index during the race reached over 100° F/37.8° C (Photo credit: Andrew Nelles/USA Today Sports)