Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Olympic Athletes Challenged by New Opponent: Global Warming

  • Hot weather may lead to heatstroke and reduce concentration
  • Opening ceremony highlighted distress from global warming

Climate change warnings poignantly made during the Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday are likely to resonate with athletes as they struggle to train and compete in Brazil’s tropical heat.

Marathon runners, swimmers, volleyball players and even soccer referees will succumb to extreme temperatures and lose concentration during the games, in some cases risking their lives to heatstroke, according to a report released Monday by Observatorio do Clima, a Brazilian civil society group.

“Because of warming, sport will never be the same again,” and fewer records than in previous games are likely to fall as a result, the report said.

Global warming was a key theme of the opening ceremony, featuring maps, charts and graphics of rising global temperatures, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels encroaching on cities from Amsterdam to Shanghai.

Brazil heated up faster than the global average, warming 1 degrees Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in the last 54 years, and four cities smashed new heat records in 2015, according to the report. If countries don’t deliver on goals to limit global temperature rises to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, 12 Brazilian cities may have to limit play in similar games by the end of the decade, it said.

Rising Heat

Sharply higher temperatures so far haven’t impacted this year’s Olympiad, according to Jose Marengo, a climate scientist at the Brazilian government’s National Center for Monitoring Warning of Natural Disasters. Temperatures in Rio could climb to about 30 degrees Celsius on Aug. 15 from about about 24 degrees Celsius on Monday, according to Accuweather.com.

Even though the games are taking place during Brazil’s winter, the heat may still impede performance, particularly in the marathon where Olympic records have only been broken in temperatures below 12 degrees Celsius. Runners perform best between 8 degrees and 11 degrees, well below the level expected this month in Brazil, the report said.

Over the coming years, athletes are likely to “give into fatigue earlier on, even if they remain in the competition until the end,” according to the report.

‘Fade Out’

The next Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 could more heatwaves because climate change tends to create hotter summers and colder winters, Marengo said. Temperatures in the Japanese capital may top 36 degrees Celsius this week, according to AccuWeather.

“Temperatures are getting higher and heatwaves are getting more frequent,” Marengo said. “We don’t see many studies showing how this heat stress will impact people working outdoors.”

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The heat is likely to be painful for athletes from colder climates, says Brazilian tennis player Fernando Meligeni. He reckons European players won’t be used to the humidity, which will make them sweat more than usual. 

“I believe that the English and the Swedish, for example, will fade out,” Meligeni said, according to the report.

Warm temperatures have already caught out athletes. Two soccer matches in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil required technical time when so-called “wet bulb” temperatures -- a measurement used in occupational health -- reached 32 degrees Celsius, which is the “stop play” threshold for FIFA. Several athletes in the test events for the Rio Olympics had heat-related injuries. Eleven of the 18 race walkers succumbed to the heat and one fainted, according to the report.

‘Ice Helmet’

Textile companies are creating new materials that can help athletes cope with the heat while one physiologist has even tested an “ice helmet” that could form part of the kit for athletes. Yet these new technologies may prove too expensive for poorer athletes, making it harder for them to reach the top of their game, warned the report.

Games organizers may also need to think about moving outdoor events indoors, or hosting marathons during the nights in future to ensure they are competing in cooler temperatures, Marengo said.

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