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Tokyo 2020’s marathons set for Sapporo move amid heat fears

Officials react to sprayed artificial snow from snow-making machines to ease heat during a canoe sprint test event for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games (by Toru Hanai/Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee has announced plans to move marathon and race walking events at the 2020 summer Olympics 800km north to Sapporo amid ongoing concerns over the weather conditions expected in Tokyo for next year’s Games.

The move to Hokkaido, the northern-most prefecture of Japan, will mean significantly lower temperatures for athletes during the Games. In Sapporo, which staged the 1972 winter Olympics, temperatures during the Games period are expected to be as much as five to six degrees centigrade cooler during the day than in Tokyo.

The IOC has taken action despite the marathons having been planned to start at 6am in Tokyo to ease the effects of heat on athletes. The men’s 50km race walk final had been scheduled for a 5:30am start.

The IOC said it has informed World Athletics of the planned changes. Athletics’ world governing body came in for criticism over its staging of marathon events at the recent World Athletics Championships in Doha. Marathons were run at around midnight in temperatures of 38 degrees centigrade in Qatar. This led to 28 of the 68 starters failing to finish the women’s marathon and 18 of the 73 failing to complete the men’s course.

The latest plans are part of a wide range of measures already being taken by Tokyo 2020 in consultation with the IOC and the International Federations (IFs) to mitigate the effects of the temperatures which may occur next summer.

In athletics, the 5,000m and longer distance races have been scheduled in the evening sessions and not in the morning. All morning games in rugby sevens have been scheduled to finish before 12pm, while in cycling, mountain bike start times have been delayed to 3pm.

Tokyo held a test marathon last month, featuring tents kitted out with mist machines for spectators. Tokyo 2020 also trialled the use of snow machines for spectators, while lawmakers from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August said they would carry out a study on how heatstroke can be prevented during the Games amid stifling temperatures in Tokyo.

The IOC said its Medical and Scientific Commission Adverse Weather Impact Expert Working Group identified the marathon and race walk as the events that would put particular heat stress on athletes.

The implementation of the initiative to move the marathon and the race walks will be discussed with all the stakeholders concerned, in particular the host city, World Athletics, the National Olympic Committees (NOCs), Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and the Rights-Holding Broadcasters (RHBs). The IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020 has dedicated a special session in its meeting from October 30 to November 1 in Tokyo to heat countermeasures.

The IOC stressed that heat was already taken into consideration when Tokyo presented its candidature in 2013, adding that it and the Organising Committee have continued to monitor the situation. IOC president Thomas Bach said: “Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns.

“A range of measures to protect the athletes have already been announced. 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.”

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe added: “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.

“Giving athletes the best platform for their performances within the environment they are in is central to all major events, and we will work with the organisers to create the very best marathon and race walk courses for next year’s Olympic Games.”