'The human body adapts': Athletes prepare for hottest Olympics Games ever in Tokyo

These Olympics Games may be the hottest on record. Saturday afternoon, the mercury is expected to hit 34 degrees. Humidity levels of 59% will add to that, though these are at the lower end of what was predicted.
'The human body adapts': Athletes prepare for hottest Olympics Games ever in Tokyo

WEATHER WORN: Team ROC’s Svetlana Gomboeva is treated for heat exhaustion in the women’s individual ranking round of archery at Yumenoshima Park Archery Field. Picture: Justin Setterfield/ Getty Images

Jussi Viskari cut an unusual figure as he sat beside Sarah Keane and Peter Sherrard of the Olympic Federation of Ireland back in November 2019, but the Finnish businessman’s understated presence for that press conference in Dublin spoke volumes.

Elaymus Group, of which Viskari is chief executive, had been named as an official reseller of the OFI’s ticket allocation for the Tokyo Games. See where this is going? This was three years after the hullabaloo in Rio and that early-morning knock on Pat Hickey’s hotel door.

One of the main headlines to emerge from that gathering was the announcement by Sherrard, the OFI’s chief executive , that there might not be enough tickets to satisfy the demand from all of Team Ireland’s athletes.

Innocent times.

Two months later and the world was being told about a strange new virus that had emerged in Wuhan. That soon put any concerns over tickets firmly in the shade and it would smother all talk of another major talking point raised in Dublin that same day. At that stage of the Olympic cycle, the emerging controversy when it came to these Games was the heat and predictions that it would be the hottest on record. Some of the endurance events had already been shifted 1,000km north to Sapporo.

The World Athletics Championship in Doha in September 2019 had only heightened concerns. Even the women’s marathon, which was held back for a midnight start to avoid the worst of it, saw a huge number of competitors fail to finish.

Tokyo has had to adapt.

Take the triathlons. Both the men’s and the women’s races will get under way at 6.30am but large generators will be used to circulate the water if it gets too hot. Hit 30C and the swim distance will be cut in half. Reach 32C and it will have to be cancelled.

The Games began on Wednesday but it’s been the usual soft opening. There are 23 sports on Saturday's bill and the mercury is expected to hit 34C. Humidity levels of 59% will add to that, though these are at the lower end of what was predicted.

It’s all a far cry from Tokyo’s last hosting job. In 1964, the Olympics started and finished in October and the planet has warmed considerably since then. Tokyo is one of those cities that is feeling some of the worst effects.

Almost 18,000 people were taken to hospital during one week straddling July and August last summer — 57 people died. The death toll due to the weather the summer before surpassed 1,500. Had Covid never happened, that heat would be the main talking point.

Preparation has been key.

“Interestingly enough, I don’t think last summer was as hot as previous summers but we have had to prepare as if this one will be,” Dr Jim O’Donovan, Team Ireland’s medical officer, said earlier this month.

“It comes down to acclimatisation. That means acclimatisation pre-travel and the use of heat chambers and different methods. Out there you need a minimum of a week to acclimatise. Our physiology team is working with them to see to their needs and some sports are more exposed than others.”

Liam Jegou is one of those who will benefit from being on the water but Ireland’s canoe slalom hope is still glad to have spent time training in Reunion Island where the conditions aren’t all that different.

Jack Woolley will be competing indoors in the taekwondo but he still thought it a good idea to decamp to Fuerteventura and there have been plenty of sessions in a type of heated greenhouse on the Sport Ireland campus.

“I won’t be out doing a marathon or anything, I couldn’t imagine that! The fact that I cut weight as well, I’m used to being in saunas and hot baths, wearing lots of jackets and being warm, so it’s not as bad for me.”

The women’s hockey team has sweated it out in 45C saunas in the University of Jordanstown. Ice vests, frozen bottles of water, and a bevvy of other, more complicated countermeasures have all been adopted by Ireland’s 116 athletes and support staff.

None of this is to suggest that Irishmen and women accustomed to sleeting rain and the odd snow shower in April are at some sort of disadvantage. Think back to 1984 when sports science was a wet towel and John Treacy was claiming his silver under a burning sun.

Or take a more recent example, in Sarasota, Florida four years ago, when Paul O’Donovan won one rowing gold and the pairing of Mark O’Donovan and Shane O’Driscoll another. Sanita Puspure finished fourth in her final and Denise Walsh sixth.

That was burn-an-egg territory too.

“That year a lot of (other) rowers blew up in the last 10m when holding a qualifying place and missed out on the final,” says O’Donovan, “and it was the same in the medal places in the final. They just couldn’t finish it out and got passed out.”

Few Irish athletes seem to have competed so often in such trying conditions as Rob Heffernan. Go through the archives and it’s hard to find a picture where the Cork walker isn’t wearing shades, a baseball hat, or pouring water over his head.

Between 2007 and 2016, Heffernan won an Olympic and European bronze as well as gold at the 2013 Worlds in Moscow.

He posted 11 top-10s in major championships, four more in the top 15, and with one 23rd place as an outlier.

Now a coach, he will have five athletes at the Games, including David Kenny and Brendan Boyce, and due diligence has been done with his athletes having spent time in the warmer climes of Spain and the Sierra Nevadas in California.

“The Irish have this massive thing about the heat,” he explains with no little exasperation. “You go to any football match and the sun comes out, it’s 15 degrees, and they start panicking. It’s not hot, like. The sun is just out, relax. It’s not warm.

“When you go away and research about heat, regardless of being Irish or Kenyan, we adapt to the heat the same. The human body adapts the exact same to a certain point. We can adapt to the really intense conditions you found in Doha, or we will find in Tokyo, or even Sapporo. It comes down to your mental and physical conditioning and just getting on with.”

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