Another health issue is rearing its head at the Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO – In addition to an unforgettable experience, covering the Tokyo Olympics entitles members of the press to one (1) commemorative backpack. They’re black, emblazoned with the logo for the Olympics and Paralympics — the ones that still say “2020” — and the media can pick theirs up at a desk in the Main Press Center. Along with a book of venue maps, inside is a cover to put over hot metal seats to avoid scalding skin, along with medication for managing heat stroke. 

A few days into the Games, that’s starting to seem more necessary than precautionary.

It’s 90 degrees and feels like 100 with the humidity in Tokyo as the Olympics get underway. It feels like you’re standing on the surface of the sun inside empty open air venues that reflect the rays back in on themselves and the handful of sweating, sweltering attendees. It feels like you need gills to catch your breath.

And that’s if you’re standing still.

Olympians are competing in the biggest event of their lives under conditions that have prompted local authorities to recommend regular people avoid outdoor exercise.

When Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, they were moved to October specifically to avoid the peak heat of July and August. A half a century later, as climate change literally boils the planet alive, we're coming off the hottest decade on record. But the IOC decided to keep the Olympics on their normal summer schedule because it'll collect more in American broadcast fees during this part of the calendar.

Now, with the heat at least as bad as could have been anticipated, organizers and athletes are having to get creative to keep the events from getting too dangerous.

In 2019, a whole year before the Games were originally scheduled to take place, the marathon and race walking events were moved to Sapporo, some 500 miles north of Tokyo, in search of a more moderate climate. Those events are still a couple weeks away, but the current forecast in the city is just a couple degrees cooler than in the capital.

After beach volleyball players struggled to practice on burning sand, event organizers resorted to hosing off the playing surface ahead of the first day of competition. Athletes donned cooling vests filled with ice water to lower their body temperature before their matches and in between sets. And the American team traveled to steamy Florida in the lead-up to the Olympics to prepare for the elements in a dedicated “heat camp.”

USA rugby is taking a similar approach of acclimation when mitigation isn’t possible. During practices, they’re wearing their game kits instead of breezy training gear to better prepare themselves for the gauntlet ahead.

“We knew we’d experience a new level of discomfort training in this heat,” said Matt Long, head of physical performance for Team USA's women's squad. “Instead of expecting ourselves not to get frustrated or easily drained, we accepted that it was a reality we’d have to face and overcome.”

During breaks they drink ice slushies, and when the hard work is done, they retreat to ice baths with popsicles.

But even the best-laid plans can melt under the glare of actual competition and direct sun.

“I wasn’t enjoying it at all,” Russian tennis player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova said of the extreme heat, despite cruising to a victory in the first round on Saturday. She struggled to take advantage of a tube blowing cool air near the bench and reported still feeling sick an hour after her match was won.

“Every time I had to take the ice pack or ice towel it wasn’t cold at all,” she said. “They expected the heat and it wasn’t 100% ready for us.”

Top-seeded Serbian star Novak Djokovic suggested that the International Tennis Federation should have moved the matches out of the midday to give the athletes a little more relief than cool towels can provide.

“I sincerely don’t understand it,” he said.

Of course the temperature is just one health issue plaguing these Games, and some of the tactics necessary for mitigating the serious threat of COVID-19 make it that much more uncomfortable to manage the extreme heat.

After a scorching noon match on Saturday, Canadian beach volleyball player Sarah Pavan approached the mixed zone struggling to catch her breath. An attendant handed her a mask in accordance with coronavirus protocol.

“My mouth is so sweaty, so sweaty,” Pavan protested half-heartedly as she complied.

“If I pass out,” she said to the assembled media, “you know why.”

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