Tokyo Lied To Get 2020 Bid, Now Athletes Paying The Price

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“It’s hot, and you need a pool!” The local Nashville commercial tagline of my youth rings in my ear, even to this day, anytime I hear someone lament about the cruel summer weather of the South.

As many of you know, in Tennessee and its surrounding states, the summer days are sweltering, and the humidity hangs thick like gelatin. Tolerating it becomes a point of pride and a rite of passage. In the pantheon of small-talk topics, the heat absolutely reigns supreme. In any nook of the country when the conversation turns to weather, surviving the South’s high temps becomes a point of admiration for anyone who’s never felt it for themselves.

Put simply, it’s likely the most famous aspect of our great region; there’s not a clueless teen or coastal elitist alive who hasn’t at least heard how serious the humidity can get in the South.

So riddle me this: how were Japanese Olympic organizers able to convince the international committees into believing that Tokyo, a city with roughly the exact same latitude as South Carolina, would provide an “ideal climate” for athletes to perform their best outdoors? According to their bid, Japan said, “with many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform their best.” Ideal, as in perfect?

Didn’t we learn from the 1996 games in Atlanta, where the literal Army was called in to help protect athletes from the grueling weather conditions? When Tokyo originally hosted the games in 1964, they were held in October to accommodate the well-known humidity. These days, though, it seems like everyone simply shrugs and forgets how to produce quality products, instead opting for quick-fixes and ritualized turnip-squeezing.

Because exorbitant sums of cash are on the line—American television partners especially covet this quiet part of the sports schedule, but it seems to work worldwide—the quality of the product suffers, and we take one more collective step toward an apathetic world in which nothing matters but the debt service.

Athletes in every outdoor sport are publicly complaining about the oppressive heat, and as Southerners, we should be most sympathetic. Would you want to run a triathlon in late July around Charleston? Simone Biles wouldn’t even get out of her limo if gymnastics were an outdoor sport.

Jul 23, 2021; Tokyo, Japan;  Svetlana Gomboeva (ROC) is treated for heat exhaustion after completion of the archery ranking round during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Yumenoshima Archery Field. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Network
A Russian Archer faints in Tokyo heat. via Jack Gruber, USA TODAY Network

The heat is even leading to rule changes in the races regarding water, ice bags, and the trash they create. Racers are forced to douse themselves with liquids over and over just to keep from fainting.

It’s not an unfair situation given that all athletes are dealing with it together, but it’s a mess nevertheless, and it’s all driven by shortsighted greed, whereas just a modicum of appreciation for the product itself would have helped tremendously.

But here we are, in this strange bubble of international consumerism where we literally expect our leaders to act in their own self-interest instead of the interests of their countrymen or the honor of the activity.

We don’t trust those in power, we are constantly forced to read between the lines in all media, and we are judged wholly on our balance sheet in life. It’s a sad state of affairs that rears its ugly head at every turn: craftsmanship and care have been replaced by self-righteous shrugs and patronizing head pats.

Caring about the quality of a product more so than the speed in which it gets delivered makes you a fool. In other words, naiveté has become the eighth deadly sin.

Obviously, Japan knew it was lying from the jump. In 2014, soon after the city was awarded the bid, a column in the Japan Times wondered how this Summer bid was going to even work.

“I have been to Manila, Bangkok, Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Singapore in mid-summer and in my experience Tokyo is the worst of them all,” Times author Robert Whiting wrote. “The only conceivable places that are worse would be staging the games in, say, Death Valley, California, or the Horn of Africa.”

Nao Hibino of Team Japan attempts to cool down between games during her Women's Singles First Round match against Nina Stojanovic of Team Serbia on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo, on July 24
Nao Hibino of Team Japan attempts to cool down between games during her Women’s Singles First Round match against Nina Stojanovic of Team Serbia on day one of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo, on July 24 Photographer: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

But of course, as we’ve come to expect from literally all national and international athletic governing bodies, nothing matters but the bottom line.

Japan submitted the heftiest bid, along with who knows what other array of kickbacks that it takes to curry favor with the IOC. And so here we are, watching world-class athletes barely drag themselves across finish lines.

“Playing in extreme heat and humidity, it’s very challenging,” said Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic. “It’s something we’ve known coming into Tokyo, we heard and expected the conditions would be very tough, but before you come here and experience that, you don’t really know how difficult it is.”

Is a string of hot days worthy of uproar? Absolutely not, but it is worthy of conversation; in fact, weather may be our favorite conversation. What’s worthy of uproar is the continued mishandling of our traditions and values. The world has become farcical in its attempt to elevate the notion of equitable, shared humanity while simultaneously destroying that same humanity with a slew of shortsighted, selfish decisions.

Without a return to integrity, a return to sound management and true leadership, we’re never going to reach our potential. Because of the conditions in Tokyo, our athletes will have a difficult time reaching theirs, as well, during this Olympic cycle.

Cover photo via David Goldman, AP.

Written by TK Sanders


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