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Competing with the Heat: How Global Warming Is Changing the Olympics and Paralympics

By: Sophie Drukman-Feldstein

Sep 3, 2021 | 7 minute read

In one sense, the challenge that Olympians and Paralympians have been facing this summer is an exceptional one. Yet in another sense, these world-class athletes are an unusually visible example of a much more widespread problem- global warming.


If your students watched the Olympics, they witnessed one of the hottest Olympics seasons in history. We're now nearing the end of the Paralympics, and Tokyo's harsh weather has seldom let up. The extreme temperatures and high humidity have proven a challenge for many athletes. Russian archer Svetlana Gomboeva passed out from heat exhaustion during a qualifying round, and Spanish tennis player Paula Badosa left the court in a wheelchair after losing her first match due to heatstroke. 


When an umpire asked Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev whether he could finish a match, Medvedev replied, “I can finish the match, but I can die. If I die, are you going to be responsible?”

These difficult conditions provide a striking example of the real-world effects of climate change. Tangible impacts like the ones we’re seeing in Tokyo are an excellent entry-point for discussing global warming with your class (and, in this case, an especially great way to draw in students who have an interest in athletics). Here’s what you need to know to discuss extreme heat at the Olympics and Paralympics with your students. 


Teach about Heat and Humidity


Climate change has had a dramatic impact on Tokyo. Since 1900, the city’s average temperature has gone up by 2.9 degrees Celsius, more than three times the world’s average temperature increase in that time. What’s more, Japan’s heat has been fatal in recent years, with more than 1,000 people dying in the summer of 2018 and dozens dying in the summer of 2019. The death toll in 2019 included a construction worker building the infrastructure that supported this year’s Olympics.


StC - Why is Tokyo so hot? The metropolis is what’s known as a “heat island,” or a city that’s hotter than the surrounding area due to factors such as heat-absorbing concrete and a lack of greenery. You can learn --and teach-- about the heat island effect in Tokyo with this interactive resource from Google Earth.


But as the saying goes, it’s not (just) the heat— it’s the humidity. Humid air makes it harder for the human body to cool down because sweat can’t evaporate into an atmosphere already saturated with water. And this has been a brutally humid summer in Tokyo, causing thermal discomfort to many athletes. The weather has often felt considerably hotter than it is. For instance, on the day Medvediv struggled to finish his match, the temperature was 88 degrees Fahrenheit, but the heat index (a metric that captures how hot it feels by factoring in both heat and humidity) was 99 degrees Fahrenheit!


StC - Curious about the interaction between heat and humidity, or looking to introduce the idea to your students? This resource from NOAA does a good job of explaining it!


Teach about Environmental Justice


The weather presents a particular danger during the Paralympics because some athletes’ disabilities put them at greater risk of health complications from the heat. “Athletes with a spinal cord injury are unable to thermoregulate efficiently below their lesion, with sweating and consequently evaporative heat loss impossible,” the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS) states in “Rings of Fire,” a report on how heat could impact the games. The report goes on to say that people with prosthetic limbs often suffer from skin problems that high temperatures can exacerbate and that heat can cause a range of issues for people with neurological conditions. What’s more, these risks are not contained to the moment of competition. Support staff must “consider the impact on Paralympic athletes, not only during the performance but whilst living and thriving in the environment for the duration of the time they are in the country,” BASIS urges.

"You have to figure out different ways to cool yourself,” said American hand cyclist Ryan Pinney. Pinney’s lower body is unable to produce sweat due to a spinal injury, so he keeps cool by soaking his legs in water before racing.


StC - Athletics isn’t the only context in which climate change disproportionately harms disabled people. This Our Climate Voices interview with community organizer Alexia Leclercq dives into the relationship between climate justice and disability justice.


In one sense, the challenge that Olympians and Paralympians have been facing this summer is an exceptional one. After all, these athletes are performing exceptional feats. They are engaged in a test of what the human body, pushed to its absolute limit, can achieve. This test becomes harder as a warming planet imposes new constraints on the body.


Yet in another sense, these world-class athletes are an unusually visible example of a much more widespread problem: people having to live and work in increasingly dangerous heat. Rising temperatures particularly endanger anyone who has to perform physical labor in an outdoor or non-air conditioned setting, whether they are an athlete, a construction worker, or a farmworker. This summer’s heat broke records in many places, but as the years go by, we can only expect summers to get hotter. It is imperative that we find ways to keep people safe in the heat, especially those who do manual labor outdoors.


StC - If you want to start conversations with your students about who climate change impacts the most and how we can fight for them, this introduction to environmental justice from the Climate Reality Project is a great place to start.


Teach about Adaptation


So how can athletes stay safe in the heat? This challenge --an example of climate adaptation-- has prompted a variety of different approaches. At the Olympics, safety precautions sometimes included shortening and rescheduling competitions. USA Swimming, for instance, has rules to decrease the distance of specific races if the water surpasses certain temperatures and to call off the race if the water surpasses 85 degrees Fahrenheit. While such a rule does not exist for tennis, players were able to get safer conditions this year by advocating for themselves. After pressure from players such as Medvedev and Novak Djokovic, officials pushed tennis matches later in the day, starting them at 3:00 PM instead of 11:00 AM.


While off the field, players rely on methods such as ice vests and mobile air conditioners to keep cool. But individual athletes’ safety measures don’t necessarily begin at the Olympics-- they often begin with training. Australian kayaker Jo Brigden-Jones, for instance, prepared for this year’s Olympics by biking in a heat chamber. In tennis, one of the Olympic sports most affected by heat, training for hot conditions is a standard part of preparing for the Summer Olympics. Makoto Yokohari, an urban planning professor and an advisor to the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, proposed a different way of dealing with the heat: don’t have the Olympics in the summer at all. Moving the Summer Olympics to the fall or spring, argued Yokohari, is “the only way that…most of the cities in the world will be able to host the Olympic Games."