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Stifling Tokyo Heat, Humidity Create Even Tougher Conditions For Athletes

The soaring temperatures are bordering on dangerous for many competitors at these Olympics.
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TOKYO — Florian Wellbrock won the men’s 10 km open water swim Thursday morning by defeating 25 humans and one other rival that was tougher than all the rest. “The temperature was the biggest competitor,” the German said.

Wednesday, in the women’s 10 km, conditions were similar. “We knew coming in that it was going to be pretty warm,” said American Haley Anderson, who finished sixth. “And, well, it is what it is.” Silver medalist Sharon van Rouwendaal said, “It was tough conditions at the end. It got warmer and warmer when we went faster and faster.”

How hot was the water in Tokyo Bay? Official temperature at the start for the women was 29.3 degrees celsius, which is 84.74 degrees Fahrenheit. When trying to power your way through six-plus miles of swimming, that is certainly detrimental to performance and bordering on dangerous.

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And that was with a starting time of 6:30 a.m. There were many other athletes—at the track and elsewhere—laboring through mid-day temperatures on dry land that were in the upper 90s, with enough humidity to produce a “feels like” reading in the range of 106-108 degrees. Walking around was a chore; competing was downright depleting.

In tennis, Russian Daniil Medvedev took two medical timeouts during one match, at one point telling the chair umpire, “I can finish the match, but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?” He didn’t die, but it was ugly at the tennis venue. Spain's Paula Badosa left the court in a wheelchair after retiring from her quarterfinal match due to heat stroke.

At the golf venue, Jack Fulghum, the caddie for American Lexi Thompson, had to quit their round Wednesday after 15 holes and was treated for heat exhaustion, according to golf.com. “I’m from Florida and I’m still not used to that bad of heat,” Thompson said. Another caddie was rushed to the hospital earlier in the week with heat stroke.

Some events have been rescheduled for cooler hours. Both Canada and Sweden, who will meet in the women’s gold medal soccer match Friday, requested that the start time be moved back from 11 a.m. due to anticipated sweltering condition. On Thursday night in Tokyo, it was rescheduled to 9 p.m. Friday, Japan time.

This is no way to run an Olympics. But that’s the deal the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo made with NBC to stage the Summer Games in a greenhouse. They could have moved this event out of the dead of summer in a witheringly hot and humid place, as was the case in 1964 when the Olympics were here. That one was staged from Oct. 10-24 as a concession to the weather.

Since then, of course, the Olympics have become much more of a television show. That escalated the rights fees and also the influence TV networks can exert over how and when the Games are contested. With NBC swinging the biggest stick (it paid $7.75 billion for the rights to all Olympic Games from 2021 through 2032), the decision about when to stage these Olympics was never going to be dictated by weather.

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Autumn might be the ideal time from a meteorological perspective, but it sure isn’t when it comes to butting up against King Football and new seasons of TV shows in American programming. The summer Olympics were going to be in the dead of summer, despite one of the least hospitable climates possible at that time.

A pandemic was impossible to foresee coming. Crushing heat and humidity? Not so much. Athlete welfare wasn’t exactly the top concern in scheduling these Olympics. It probably wasn’t a concern at all.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Part of Atlanta’s successful bid for the 1996 Olympics was brazenly misrepresenting the average summer temperatures there. According to the Los Angeles Times, Atlanta Organizing Committee chairman Billy Payne told the IOC in 1990 that the average temperature in his city in late July and early August would be “about 72 degrees.” The highs are actually in the upper 80s.

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While nobody is shocked to learn that summer is hot, dismissing the potential impact of severe heat is callous disregard for the competitors. There is, for instance, fatal evidence of the dangers of open water swimming in extreme conditions.

American Fran Crippen died in 2010 while competing in water off Dubai that reportedly was 87 degrees. In the aftermath, USA Swimming established rules that say “a race shall not begin” in water that is 29.45 degrees celsius/85 degrees Fahrenheit. FINA, the governing body of international swimming, has a standard of 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

The open water events here were within those parameters, but not by much. This was an event that was teetering on the edge of unsafe.

Preparing for the inevitable sauna that awaited them, American open water competitors Anderson, Ashley Twichell and Jordan Wilimovsky trained in April in a heated diving well at the pool in Mission Viejo, Calif. “It was not fun,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who has now competed in open water in the last three Olympics, said her ideal water temperature for racing would be 75-78 degrees. She didn’t complain about racing in water nearly 10 degrees warmer than that, emphasizing that the conditions were the same for everyone and that she trained for that eventuality.

But how would she feel about an October open water Olympic swim as opposed to August?

“October would have been fine with me,” she said.

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