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Editorial: Moving the Tokyo Games marathon to Sapporo

  • October 24, 2019
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press

It now appears almost certain that the marathon and race walking events at the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo will be moved from Tokyo to Sapporo to avert the intense summer heat in the nation’s capital. The International Olympic Committee proposed the change in venue citing concern over possible health risks to athletes, spectators, race officials and others involved, noting that daytime temperatures during that season are generally 5 to 6 degrees lower in Sapporo than in Tokyo. The IOC is reported to have already reached an agreement with the organizing committee of the Tokyo Games, although discussions with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the city of Sapporo are still pending.


It is unusual to change the venues of major Olympic events just 10 months before they are held. The process that led to the IOC’s decision, which came out of the blue for many, must be scrutinized, while the move to Sapporo will entail a variety of issues that need to be sorted out, including who will bear the additional cost. It may come as a shock to the athletes who had prepared and competed for the events that were to be held in Tokyo, but it is a decision that places priority on protecting their health. Once the decision is finalized, preparations must move forward so that it will have an overall positive effect on the 2020 Olympics.


Concern has long been raised over holding the Olympics in the middle of Tokyo’s hot and humid summer, particularly the outdoor endurance events. That concern intensified in the past few years as heat waves swept through the country, leaving large numbers of people dead or suffering from heat-related illnesses. Steps have been taken to address the concern. The marathons — scheduled for Aug. 2 for the women’s race and Aug. 9 for the men’s event — were to start at 6 a.m., 90 minutes earlier than initially planned, to avert the onslaught of the daytime heat. The streets to be used as the race course have been paved with a special coating that reduces the heat reflecting from the road surface.


What reportedly prompted the IOC to decide to change the marathon and race walking venues was the severe heat during the IAAF World Athletics Championship held in Doha from Sept. 27 to Oct. 6. Even though the marathon and race walking events were staged at night to avoid the scorching daytime heat, only about 60 percent of the runners in the women’s marathon were able to finish the race, and concern was even raised over potential risk to the athletes’ lives. IOC President Thomas Bach says moving the marathon and race walking venues to Sapporo is aimed at ensuring the athletes’ safety — which should always be the priority when organizing sporting events.


Changing the venues from Tokyo to Sapporo — where the race courses and other conditions will be vastly different — in such a short time before the events is certain to create confusion among not only the athletes but the officials who had made all the preparations to make the events in Tokyo safe and successful. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has complained that she was not informed of the plan until just before it was announced, despite all the efforts that the capital put into preparing for the events as host of the 2020 Games.


To get to the root of the problem, both the IOC and the Olympic organizers should reflect on what they did during the process that selected Tokyo as host of the 2020 Summer Olympics. In the process of choosing from candidate sites, the IOC mandated that the Summer Olympics must be held between mid-July to the end of August, while the Tokyo organizers, which proposed the games running from July 24 to Aug. 9, claimed that the capital in that period would have an ideal climate with many sunny and warm days in which the athletes will be able to perform under optimum conditions.


The IOC is believed to limit the period for holding the Summer Olympics from mid-July through the end of August in view of the tight schedules of other major sporting events and TV broadcasting interests. In the United States, popular professional sports like football and basketball begin their seasons in September and October. The sale of broadcasting rights to the Olympic events account for 70 percent of the games’ revenue, and the major U.S. broadcasting networks such as NBC are the key patrons of the IOC. So the IOC calls for holding the Summer Olympic Games by August.


But the intensifying summer heat is not a problem unique to Japan. If the IOC truly wants to put the health of athletes first so they can perform under the best possible conditions, it should give the candidates seeking to host the Summer Olympics greater flexibility in choosing the games’ schedule in light of the local climate.

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