How Much Is Tokyo’s Extreme Heat Affecting Athletes, Really?

The Tokyo Games are the hottest on record, and we might just be getting started

July 30, 2021 8:22 am
Humidity has soared past 90% since the Games began last week. Athletes  — and the city's beleaguered medical professionals — are paying the price.
Humidity has soared past 90% since the Games began last week. Athletes — and the city's beleaguered medical professionals — are paying the price.
Photo by Dai Tianfang/Xinhua via Getty Images

This TikTok went viral the other day. It shows the finish of the men’s triathlon at the Tokyo Games, accompanied by an incredulous voiceover. One by one, each competitor crosses the line only to immediately collapse on the carpet tarmac and beg for water. The camera pans to an aerial view of the scene, which the guy who made the video christens “absolute carnage.” He’s right — it looks like a battlefield a few minutes after a round of gentleman’s warfare. He concludes: “Why would you do this to yourself? Unbelievable.”

The video is the latest in a long tradition of poking fun at anonymous athletes who spend their lives working hard at relatively unheralded sports. Endurance athletes in particular, whose occupation of choice is almost everyone else’s personal hell, often bear the brunt of this low-stakes abuse. But in this particular instance, it should be pointed out that that was no typical triathlon finish. Those competitors were collapsing like never before because they’d just swam, biked and ran through heat — the literal kind — that most of them had never seen before.

Both the men’s and women’s triathlons were moved up to 6:30 a.m., but Tokyo — the hottest host of the Olympic Games since Los Angeles in 1984 — had its say anyway: 82-degree heat, 67% humidity, feels like 86. The top finisher overall, Norway’s Kristian Blummenfelt, and the top American finisher, Kevin McDowell (who placed sixth), explained after the race that they fully anticipated the heat. “I’m from Bergen, where for two-thirds of the year it’s windy, rainy and 10 degrees,” Blummenfelt told Reuters. “Our team is world-leading for heat preparation.” McDowell, meanwhile, credited “Gatorade Icees” with helping him reach the finish.

Still, Blummenfelt keeled over, puked and had to be rolled away on a wheelchair. McDowell was part of that infamous TikTok carnage. And many of the race’s projected podium-finishers officially “succumbed to the heat” during the final leg, according to the UK’s 220 Triathlon.

tokyo heat
Apologies to you and your lunch. Triathletes braved sweltering heat this to reach the finish line.
Photo by LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images

The heat has impacted every outdoor Olympic event thus far. The top two men’s tennis players in the world — Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev — both dropped some serious soundbites on the issue this week. Djokovic, who not so subtly called out Simone Biles’s early departure from the Games (“Pressure is a privilege, my friend”), admitted that even he has struggled in the current conditions. “[It’s] brutal,” Djokovic said. “I’ve played tennis professionally now 20 years and I’ve never faced these kind of conditions in my entire life on a consecutive daily basis.”

For his part, Medvedev nearly failed to make it off the court. This past Wednesday, the chair umpire had to ask him if he could continue playing. ““I can finish the match, but I can die,” Medvedev replied. “If I die, are you going to be responsible?” After the match was over, which he somehow managed to win, Medvedev reported that he felt “darkness” in his eyes.

As some of the other players have pointed out, these matches become less about tennis, and more about who is willing to go longer and harder in the dangerous heat. Since Ariake Tennis Park, the event’s venue, blocks the breeze, it traps humidity down on the court. Players are serving in 99-degree heat.

Elsewhere: beach volleyball players had to stop practicing because the sand was burning their feet, horses are hanging out in “mist-spraying stations,” and several athletes (and referees) have adopted the use of ice vests to keep their core temperatures down. For the last 18 months, the the discussion surrounding these will they-won’t they games has hinged on the spread of the coronavirus (which is alive and well in Tokyo, by the way: the city registered a record 3,177 new cases yesterday), but it seems obvious now that this edition of the Olympics was always going to be a head-scratcher.

Would a different host city have fared better? Climate nihilists out there would probably say no, especially considering the two cities that finished just behind Tokyo at the 125th IOC Session in 2013: Istanbul, Turkey and Madrid, Spain. Both cities are posting temperatures in the mid 90s this week (if without the otherworldly humidity of Tokyo). All told, it’s probably time to start reconsidering the timing of future Summer Games.

Following the recent onslaught of wildfires, droughts and “hottest months ever,” The New York Times ran an article this week titled “Is This the End of Summer as We’ve Known It?” TL;DR: it’s getting grim out there. With that in mind, what sort of precedence should be afforded to a two-week event that costs billions in resources and requires enormous international coordination? (The exact sort of international coordination, mind you, that is sorely needed in the fight against climate change.)

What will Paris look and feel like in 2024? How hot will Los Angeles get in 2028? Brisbane, which won the 2032 Games against zero rival bids, will at least invite the world over during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. But it’s the closest to the equator of Australia’s biggest cities, and hotter than Sydney and Melbourne, with a year-round subtropical climate. Looking beyond that, the leading candidate for the 2036 Games, believe it or not, is Indonesia. The country is about as directly on top of the equator as you can possibly be.

la 2028
Tokyo 2020 was a bad idea. Los Angeles 2028 could be even worse.
Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

There are some athletes, believe it or not, who actually stand to benefit from performing in the heat. Sprinters, for instance, require “fast-twitch” muscle contractions that can economize and accelerate their turnover. In the cold, muscles can turn stiff and reject those movements, leading to hesitation from a runner, or outright injury. It’s no surprise that a notoriously hot nation like Jamaica turns out the world’s best sprinters. But the longest sprinting event won’t last more than 45 seconds; most long-distance runners and team-sport athletes are outside for hours at a time.

When it’s bad out there — and that doesn’t have to be much hotter than 80 degrees — the body’s blood flow enters an anatomical tug of war, at once rushing to enrich tired muscles with oxygen and bubbling up to the surface to cool down the skin. When blood vessels reach the skin, though, the body has a really hard time expelling heat — especially in a place like Tokyo, where the air is thick with humidity and it’s harder to evaporate sweat from the skin. The muscles end up getting short shrift. In order for these Olympians to perform at the level they hoped, they’ll have to ask the heart to pump a bit more blood, triggering a phenomenon known as cardiac drift: the heart works harder, but you won’t exactly gets a bump in performance to show for it. 

That’s one reason you probably won’t see any records set in the marathon when the runners head out and run 26.2 miles around Sapporo next week (the event was moved 500 miles north so they wouldn’t have to run through Tokyo). Some might argue that at the end of the day, this is what athletics are all about: the uncertainty of completion, and the wherewithal required to overcome it. My best versus your best, regardless of what Mother Nature has to say on a given day. An Australian kayaker told Time that she prepared for Tokyo by biking in a heat chamber.

But that spirit of unpredictability does nothing to help over-boarded Tokyo hospitals and their depleted medical professionals, who begged for this event to be canceled. The same symptoms that many athletes, coaches, referees and familial spectators are experiencing from the heat are frustratingly similar to symptoms displayed by COVID-19 patients. It’s a confusing complication that nobody needed, at a Games that almost certainly should not have happened. And that’s to say nothing of the PPE requirements — for athletes and medical professionals alike — which makes moving around the Olympic Village a miserable, exhausting experience for everyone involved.

If we’ve learned one thing from these Games so far, it’s to take it easy on the athletes competing in them. There is no on/off switch for an athletic dream. But to get this far — to qualify, then quarantine — they pretty much had to create one. Tokyo was the endgame after all those months, but it hasn’t been a blissful one: 82-degree heat and 67% humidity feels like pain, and the athletes enduring it are nothing short of heroic.

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