Chariots of Fire: The Olympics confront a warming world 

Tokyo 2020 games set to be the hottest in history

By Justin Sharon

(Justin Sharon is a longtime freelance writer. After working at Merrill Lynch for many years, he transitioned to financial journalism. Among other subjects, he also authors a monthly column about British soccer.)

NEW YORK (Callaway Climate Insights) — Ahead of Friday’s opening ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics, most of the world’s focus has been on the growing Covid-19 case rate among assembled athletes. Yet lurking under the radar — Doppler and otherwise — is another dire development, less commented upon but an existential threat to the very future of the games itself. The sweltering summer of 2021, having already inflicted 116°F. heat on Oregon and pushed the mercury in Canada beyond that of Dubai, is now set to serve up the hottest Olympics in history. 

Temperatures in the Tokyo region are expected to be in the low to mid-90s °F. with dew points and humidity levels above 70 and 88, respectively, for much of the Games. Those numbers can easily spike.

Organizers of the pandemic-postponed athletic extravaganza, scheduled to run from July 23 to Aug. 8, have already made several climate-related concessions to those events deemed most susceptible to the Japanese capital’s notorious summertime heat and humidity. (Seasonal conditions in the city are so oppressive that an Olympics construction worker died in 2019 of suspected heatstroke).

Most notably, both the men’s and women’s marathon have been moved to the considerably cooler city of Sapporo. Start times for this ultimate blue ribbon event, along with those of rugby, road cycling, race walking, long-distance running, and the triathlon, have also been altered to avoid competing when the midday sun is at its most scorching.  

Climate change has come increasingly to the fore in recent Olympics — a video about melting ice caps played a prominent part in the opening ceremony for Rio 2016 — yet the history of the Games shows that there is little new under the sun, snow, or smog. According to the International Olympic Committee charter, each Olympiad must be held “under conditions as perfect as possible.” For both the Winter and Summer iterations alike, however, this Corinthian ideal has often proved a pipe dream.  

Memories are still fresh of Sochi 2014, the warmest Winter Olympics of all time when high temperatures flirted with 70°F. while shirtless spectators watched skiers navigate melting machine-made snow. The sultry conditions saw more than 100 athletes sign a petition demanding political action on climate change. Unseasonable warmth in Vancouver prompted the postponement of several events at the 2010 Winter Games, snowboarding and ski jumping among them. Decades earlier, the men’s 10,000 meters speed skating competition at San Moritz in 1928 was controversially cancelled on account rising temperatures rapidly thawing the ice. 

Turning to the summer incarnation, Greta Thunberg’s hometown of Stockholm suffered through an unusual Scandinavian heatwave at the 1912 Games. The conditions were so severe that Portuguese runner Francisco Lazaro died of an electrolyte imbalance thought to be brought on by heat exhaustion while running the marathon. He remains the only fatality to succumb in the marquee Olympics event. (If one excludes poor Pheidippides, who expired immediately after completing the inaugural staging circa 490 BC). 

The Paris 1924 Olympics, made famous by the film Chariots of Fire, were a similar frying pan. With the temperature touching 113°F. in the cross-country race, eight stretchers were summoned and only 15 participants from an original field of almost 40 managed to complete the course. Won by the legendary “Flying Finn” Paavo Nurmi, the event was swiftly scratched from future Games out of safety concerns. 

Fast forward 60 years, and the Los Angeles 1984 games were held when terms like acid rain and the ozone layer were first entering the lexicon. The effects of LA’s infamous smog were most apparent in the men’s 800 meters final. Respiratory issues saw British gold medalist and multiple world record holder Steve Ovett finish a distant last. The stunning upset was later attributed to an asthmatic attack brought on by air pollution. 

“Hotlanta,” in 1996, the most recent Stateside Summer Olympics, certainly lived up to its name. Georgia’s capital typically had a heat index in the triple digits during these centennial games. Organizers approved a seven-figure expenditure simply to keep horses cool at equestrian events, while water spray mists were routinely employed to help fans beat the heat. 

If the past is prologue, what will the upcoming Olympics look like in an ever-warming world? Granted, long-term climate projections can be fraught with hazard – hence Wall Street’s old joke about economists being created to make weather forecasters look good — but the portents are undeniably grim.

Beijing, which made waves at its 2008 summer Olympics by literally firing silver iodide rockets at clouds to control rainfall, may need to get similarly creative with computer-controlled snowmaking when it hosts next year’s Winter games. World Meteorological Organization data show the city’s average February highs to be considerably above freezing. 

Looking ahead, a 2018 study by Canada’s University of Waterloo warned that, “If global emissions of greenhouse gasses are not dramatically reduced, only eight of the 21 cities that have previously hosted the Winter Olympics will be cold enough to reliably host the games by the end of this century.” Such storied names as Innsbruck, Oslo, and Sarajevo would all fall off the roster. 

For the summer edition, predictions are equally ominous. (Moving the event to cooler months isn’t an option, incidentally. NBCUniversal and its parent company Comcast (CNCSA), having shelled out some $7.75 billion to secure broadcast rights between 2021 and 2032, covet the captive audience that comes with staging the event during July and August, when the U.S. pro sports calendar is comparatively empty). A report published in The Lancet predicted that, by 2085, major continental capitals including Madrid, Rome, and Paris would all be too hot to host, as indeed would Tokyo. 

Going forward, the IOC says sustainability issues will be a key determinant in selecting host cities. Paris, home of the eponymous 2015 climate agreement, plans to showcase the sports world’s first ever climate positive event at its 2024 games. Four years later, Los Angeles, whose eight hottest years on record have all occurred in the past decade, aims to burnish its green bona fides by promoting renewable energy sources. And Brisbane, awarded the 2032 games just this week, will rely heavily on pre-existing stadia. 

Tokyo 2020 (as organizers still insist on calling it) has had an undeniably star-crossed journey to the starting line. The “empty Olympics,” occurring during a state of emergency and an absence of fans, seems to be singularly cursed. Yet future games, unfolding in an era when carbon footprints increasingly crowd out Olympian feats, may provide redundant proof that misery loves company.