Tennis Star Feared Extreme Heat at the Tokyo Olympics Could Kill Him

Tennis Star Feared Extreme Heat at the Tokyo Olympics Could Kill Him
Photo: Patrick Semansky, AP

The Tokyo Olympics continue to be an unmitigated climate disaster. It was so hot and humid on Wednesday that Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev thought he could die.

“I’m a fighter, I will finish the match, but I can die,” he told the umpire during a match at the Ariake Tennis Park. “If I die, is the [International Tennis Federation] going to take responsibility?”

It was 88 degrees Fahrenheit (31 degrees Celsius) on the court, but the heat index made it feel like 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Those are less than ideal conditions for any outdoor activity. But for an Olympic tennis match, they’re brutal — even dangerous.

Shortly afterward, the International Tennis Federation announced that tennis matches will now start at 3 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. to avoid the hottest and most humid weather. In a statement, officials said they made the call “in the interests of player health and welfare and following extensive consultation.”

Later the same day, Spanish tennis player Paula Badosa left the court in a wheelchair, suffering from heatstroke. She was forced to retire from her women’s singles quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova.

After the match was over, Vondrousova admitted that she’d been able to withstand the heat only because she’s taking special precautions. “In the match, I use the ice towels and also use the air tube,” she said in comments posted by Olympics officials. After a first-round match, star player Novak Djokovic said the heat was “brutal.” Multiple contestants collapsed on the track during the men’s triathlong, showing Wednesday wasn’t merely an isolated day of extreme conditions or a single event.

Long before the games began, officials knew that this year’s Olympics were going to be hot. Climate change has made extreme heat more common and intense. Making matters worse is that Tokyo is a heat island. Its tall buildings and abundant pavement trap heat, and there is barely any green space to provide shade.

Earlier this week, it was revealed that in its bid to host the Olympics, Tokyo wasn’t exactly upfront about the potential dangers heat could pose. In a 2020 bid document, the city assured the International Olympic Committee that “with many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform their best.” The city’s temperatures have trended upward.

Organisers took some precautions in the weeks before the games, including installing shade tents, portable air conditioning units, ice baths, coolers full of cold water bottles, and misting fans in designated competition arenas. They also moved some events to the city of Sapporo, which is about 500 miles (805 kilometers) north of Tokyo and is generally slightly cooler.

This isn’t the first sporting event to be marred by the climate crisis. The 2014 Australia Open saw temperatures so high that water bottles melted and players collapsed. Last year, the event was besieged by bushfire smoke that caused players to struggle to breathe. And in 2018, Cal and Stanford postponed their historic rivalry football game as California was smothered by the most toxic air on Earth tied to wildfires burning in the state.

Still, the Tokyo Olympics have been their own special type of hell. Between surging covid-19 cases and a typhoon hitting the beach where surfers were competing, this years Olympics seem cursed.