TOKYO: The Olympic marathon and race walking events during Tokyo 2020 will be moved to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido from originally planned courses in the capital due to worries about heat, the International Olympic Committee said on Wednesday.
The IOC detailed a new plan on Wednesday to stage the events in Sapporo, the host city of the 1972 Winter Olympics, which “will mean significantly lower temperatures for the athletes.” Forecast temperatures in Sapporo are “five to six degrees centigrade cooler during the day than in Tokyo,” the Olympic body said.
The IOC is considering the move because temperatures in Tokyo during the July 24-August 9 Games could reach the high 30s Celsius.
“Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “The new far-reaching proposals to move the marathon and race walking events show how seriously we take such concerns.
“The Olympic Games are the platform where athletes can give ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ performances, and these measures ensure they have the conditions to give their best.”
Still, one Olympic medal contender affected by the plan questioned if athletes were consulted.
“I’m assuming this means you’ll be paying for my family and friends flights and accommodations who have already booked for Tokyo?” Evan Dunfee of Canada, who took worlds bronze in the 50-kilometre walk, wrote in a Twitter post tagged to the IOC and track and field’s world body.
“This breaks my heart and is poised to ruin my Olympic experience. Was there ANY consultation with athletes over this?” Dunfee wrote.
The plan to change to change the location of the events has yet to be rubberstamped.
The initiative will need the backing of all of the major stakeholders, notably the host city Tokyo, the national Olympic committees and the relevant broadcasters.
“Working closely with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee will discuss this matter with the concerned parties at the upcoming IOC Coordination Commission meetings,” a Tokyo 2020 statement said.
However, Kyodo News reported officials describing the move as coming “out of the blue.” “We have practical experience with running big competitions such as the Hokkaido Marathon, but will that know-how translate to the Olympics?” a Sapporo official was quoted as saying by Kyodo.
Organisers had been looking for ways to protect athletes and spectators from Tokyo’s sweltering temperatures expected during next year’s Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games.
Tokyo held a test marathon in September, featuring tents equipped with mist machines for spectators. Officials had also been planning to hold longer-distance races during cooler hours, but questions had persisted over whether such steps were enough.
An Olympic panel has been assessing heat and weather issues for the Games and is consulting with sports governing bodies.
“The IOC working group identified the marathon and race walk as the events that would put particular heat stress on the athletes,” it said.
The marathons were already due to start at 6 a.m. in Tokyo to ease the heat effect on runners. The men’s 50-kilometer race walk final was slated for a 5:30 a.m. start.
The IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020 will dedicate a special session in its meeting in Tokyo at the end of the month to measures to deal with the heat.
“These include better shade, water sprays, better access to water supplies and an initiative to help the athletes in their preparations,” the IOC said.
When Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964 the marathon — won by the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila — was run at 1:00pm but that was in the month of October, not August as will be the case next year.
At the recent world championships in Doha, both marathons started at midnight but the heat and humidity still presented massive problems.
Ruth Chepngetich won the women’s race in a sluggish 2hr 32min 43sec — 17 minutes outside Paula Radcliffe’s then world record — while 28 of the 68 starters failed to finish.
The men’s race was held in cooler conditions but Lelisa Desisa’s winning time of 2hr 10min 40sec was over nine minutes slower than the world record.
Ethiopian distance-running great Haile Gebrselassie said athletes “could have died” in the women’s race.
“We have been working closely with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 on the potential weather conditions at next year’s Olympic Games and will continue to work with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 on the proposal to move the road events to Sapporo,” said International Amateur Athletics Federation’s President Sebastian Coe.
“Giving athletes the best platform for their performances within the environment they are in is central to all major events. We will work with the organisers to create the very best marathon and race walk courses for next year’s Olympic Games.”
The planned relocation of the marathon and race walks are a part of a broader scheme to lessen the effects of the weather on the athletes.
The 5,000m and longer-distance races are being scheduled for the evening athletics sessions and not in the morning sessions while all rugby sevens morning games are slated to finish before 12:00pm.
The mountain bike start time has been pushed back to start at 3:00pm.
The IOC said that the timing of other events and competitions would be “kept under review”.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019