The hottest Olympics in history – Expert Reaction

When the Olympic Games open in Tokyo next Friday, New Zealand’s largest-ever team of 211 athletes is predicted to face record-breaking temperatures amid the challenge of competing in a global pandemic.

The Games will be held without cheering fans in the stands, due to a city-wide state of emergency as COVID-19 cases climb.

The SMC asked experts to comment on key concerns, and what may affect athletes’ performance, at these Games.

Dr Adam Storey, National Lead of Strength and Conditioning for Canoe Racing New Zealand, and Senior Research Fellow, Sports Performance Research Institute, AUT University, comments:

Note: Adam has directly worked with the NZ Women’s Sprint Kayak team during their preparations for the Tokyo Olympic Games, but these comments aren’t specific to the women’s sprint kayak team.

“Without a doubt, environmental factors will play a significant role in the outdoor events at the Olympics. As Tokyo is set to be the hottest Games in history, many of our New Zealand athletes have been following a regimented heat strategy to help prepare their bodies.

“The various heat acclimation interventions include training in heat chambers (where heat and humidity can be controlled), performing passive heat protocols (i.e., post-training saunas and/or spas) and/or heading overseas for training camps in warmer climates. The physiological adaptations from such interventions include an earlier onset of sweating, a greater rate of sweat production, and a reduced electrolyte loss in sweat. In addition, athletes will see a stabilisation of their core temperature and heart rate responses to exercise in the heat.

“As part of a pinnacle event build-up, it is important for athletes to compete, ideally on the world stage, to assess how they are tracking towards their ultimate goal. However, due to the current state of the world, our athletes have had to opt for local and in-house simulated competitions. Still, these events have enabled sports to test various competition scenarios such as the regular use of PPE, social distancing within competition, and the potential issue of an athlete or support staff getting sick. As touted in the world media, the Tokyo Olympics will be “a Summer Games like no other” but our athletes will be prepared for a number of challenging situations.

“The issue of ‘no crowds’ is a double-edged sword as it will have the potential to impact athletes’ performances both positively and negatively. Some athletes have literally had their family and friends attend every international competition during their careers. Therefore, competing on the world’s biggest stage in an isolated environment will be a strange experience for them but the athletes have had months to come to terms with this scenario.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Caryn Zinn, Senior Lecturer and Dietician, Auckland University of Technology, comments:

“Sticking to the nutrition game plan at the Olympics is tough. Throw in a pandemic and you add another layer to the challenge. At a ‘normal’ Olympics planned nutrition strategies can be interrupted with the overall excitement and temptation to overindulge – as there is free and easy access to almost every food or fluid you can imagine, whether it’s considered healthy or unhealthy.

“This year in Tokyo, the challenges will be different, but the outcomes might be similar. The drummed in message of ‘social distancing, face masks always, and hygiene’ will likely add an extra layer of stress to an already emotionally-charged environment. It may put a dampener on things, causing anxiety, low mood, sleep disturbance, and even isolation. This impacts food choices, often negatively; athletes could face overeating, undereating or wayward eating.

“What’s more, Tokyo’s sweltering temperatures and high humidity, partnered with the need to wear masks constantly will likely be a challenge to maintaining fluid balance and hydration status. Athletes need to be mindful of these added challenges under these physically and mentally demanding conditions.”

No conflict of interest.

Emeritus Professor Ian Culpan, Co-Director of the NZ Centre for Olympic Studies and former Head of the School of Sport and Physical Education, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Astonishingly, the Tokyo Olympic Games are scheduled to begin in one week. The staggering fact that COVID-19 is presently having a greater impact on Japan – and the rest of world – than when the Games were cancelled last year seems lost on the decision-makers. Indeed, who does have the ultimate say in whether the Games go ahead?

“The Games are the definitive property of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the responsibility for cancellation lies with the IOC, not with the organising committee, the host city, or the Japanese Government.

“Rhetoric from the IOC repeatedly assures the 90,000-plus athletes, coaches, and officials that the Games are “safe and secure”, not only to the 90,000 but also to the Japanese population – the majority of whom do not want the Games. Medical advice from experts across the globe does not necessarily share the IOC’s optimism, which raises the question as to whether the IOC believes in its own rhetoric?

“Arguably, the IOC has already positioned itself not to be responsible or liable for any ‘super-spreader event’ that might eventuate. Forcing participants to sign an agreement absolving the IOC of any liability for any health risks – now or in the future – is admittance of a significant risk. Evidence of a plethora of health practices and regulations, not least being no spectators in the stadiums, gives the health game away.

“Further, conducting the Games seems inconsistent with many clauses in the Olympic rule book, The Olympic Charter, which “serves as statutes for the IOC”. One of the two reasons as to why the IOC exists – “to promote Olympism throughout the world” – appears at variance with the IOC’s actions.

“And, other IOC documentation (such as the IOC Code of Ethics and the IOC Agenda 2020+) ooze with statements relating to the IOC’s commitment to athlete health and wellbeing, and supporting UNESCO’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. On analysis, the decision to go ahead with the Games does not align with any of the above and brings into focus the authenticity of the IOC.

“Of course, there are other considerations as to why the Games might or might not go ahead. These include economic, political, environmental, socio-cultural, and historical. However, the consideration that should loom largest is not a health, political or economic one, or any of the others. It is a moral one, particularly when the goal of Olympism – the reason why the IOC exists – “is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (Olympic Charter).

“Olympism, among other constructs, emphasises the educative value of role modelling, and the observance of an integrated set of universal, ethical principles – not least being social responsibility, respect for others, tolerance, generosity, and solidarity.

“When the risk of fuelling the global pandemic is real, how can the IOC continue to proceed when it’s decision does not align with the main reason for its existence – the harmonious development of humankind and the preservation of human dignity.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Brad Miles, Lecturer, School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The absence of an audience for the Tokyo Olympics could potentially affect athletes in a number of ways.

“Firstly, it may detract from the sense of occasion that is the Olympic Games. While many athletes will still be competing at the pinnacle of their sports, part of the appeal of the Olympics is the magnitude and pageantry of the event. Without crowds, some of that atmosphere and sense of a sporting extravaganza is likely to be lost.

“There is also the possibility of effects on performance. Performing in front of a crowd can affect people both mentally and physically. Think of the increased arousal that many people experience when confronted with public speaking. While some performers can be negatively affected by the presence of an audience, elite level performers such as Olympic athletes are often able to harness the additional arousal that comes with a crowd and use it to deliver greater performances – what psychologists call social facilitation. Without an immediate audience, these sort of effects are likely to be reduced, as might some of the performances.

“The absence of spectators may also play out differently in different sports. The potential for crowds to influence short, explosive performances like weightlifting or shot-put may be quite different from more sedate events such as shooting or archery. Similarly, events where crowds are typically somewhat removed from the action, such as in sailing, might be less affected than sports where spectators are often in close proximity.”

No conflict of interest.

Raechel Laing, Professor, Clothing and Textile Sciences, University of Otago, comments:

“There are two sets of diverse considerations that affect what athletes wear for these games.

“First, clothing choice depends on the sporting code – what dress is specified, the characteristics of the specific location in Japan where the event is held, and the duration of the event.

“Second, the surrounding environment. The temperature outdoors, before and during the event, is likely to be between 35 and 40+ degrees Celsius, and about 70 to 80% relative humidity. Some events will be indoors, and some will be in or on water, which will have likely cooling effects.

“Sporting codes specify what may be worn during an event. For example, Equestrian events – part of the Olympics since 1900 – have detailed clothing requirements for dressage (e.g. top hats/bowlers, coats/jackets, breeches, tie, gloves, and riding boots). Only the face is not covered with one or more textile layers. Wearing all this while competing physically in a hot and humid environment restricts vaporisation of sweat from the competitor.

“To compare, the dress for water polo, surfing, and swimming – also subject to specification – but there are fewer potential adverse effects from the surrounding environment. In these examples, some form of compression clothing / textiles with minimal water absorption properties is appropriate.”

No conflict of interest.