COVID And Climate Change Collide At The Olympics

17:29 minutes

a young brazilian girl in a white helmet, navy polo shirt, and khaki cargos rides a pink and black skateboard over a railing. in the background is an empty auditorium with signs for the tokyo 2020 olympics
Brazil’s Rayssa Leal competing in the skateboarding events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Credit: Shutterstock

The Tokyo Olympics have been underway for a week, with talented athletes competing at their peak. But this year, it’s hard to watch the Olympics without thinking about two of the biggest science stories of the summer: COVID-19, and the record heat and humidity athletes are facing as part of this year’s games.

Holding the Olympics during a global pandemic is uncharted territory, and keeping the virus out of the games has been a huge logistical challenge. There are more than 11,000 athletes participating in this summer’s games, coming from 206 nations. Factor in the coaches, staff, press, and service workers, and that’s a lot of people to keep healthy.

As if that wasn’t enough, Tokyo is experiencing extreme heat and humidity, consistently reaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity at about 80%. While the city has always had hot summers, they have gotten worse with climate change. Tokyo’s average annual temperature has risen by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, according to NASA. Athletes have had to take additional measures to keep themselves cool.

To tackle these stories, guest host Roxanne Khamsi talks to sports writer Hannah Keyser, from Yahoo Sports, about the Olympics’ COVID-19 protocols, as well as her experience as a reporter covering the games in Tokyo. Then, Roxanne speaks with Scott Delp, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University and director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, about athletic performance and safety.

Further Reading

  • Read a story on CNN about how climate change could push temperatures at the Olympics to the “danger zone.”
  • Read piece in MIT Tech Review that looks at health, money, and politics at the Tokyo Olympics.

Segment Guests

Hannah Keyser

Hannah Keyser is a sports writer for Yahoo Sports in Tokyo, Japan.

Scott Delp

Scott Delp is a professor of Bioengineering and director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

Segment Transcript

ROXANNE KHAMSI: This is Science Friday. I’m Roxanne Khamsi. The Tokyo Olympics have been underway for a week now, and for those of us who love seeing very talented people at the peak of their athletic abilities, it’s a fun thing to watch. But this year in particular, it’s hard to watch the Olympics without thinking about two huge science stories– COVID-19 and the record heat and humidity athletes are facing as part of this year’s Olympic games. A little later, we’ll talk about how climate change affects athletic performance.

But first, keeping COVID-19 out of the Olympics has been a huge logistical challenge. There are more than 11,000 athletes participating in this summer’s games from 206 nations. Factor in the coaches, staff, press, and service workers, that’s a lot of people to keep tabs on in order to mitigate infections. Since we’re a week into this experiment, let’s find out how it’s been going with my guest. Hannah Keyser is a sportswriter for Yahoo! Sports. She’s based in Brooklyn, but she’s joining us from Tokyo.

Hi, Hannah. Welcome to Science Friday.

HANNAH KEYSER: Hi. Thank you for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So let’s talk about COVID-19 protocols for athletes. What did they have to do before last Friday when the Olympics officially started?

HANNAH KEYSER: Well, one of the things they had to do was not show up if they’re not competing right away. So the IOC is limiting how long they can be in the village. So that’s part of why we saw a really small opening ceremony. I think we also probably saw a really small opening ceremony in terms of athlete participation because there was no one to cheer them on. There was no fans, obviously.

So you mentioned the 11,000 athletes. I think I’ve heard that there’s somewhere like 79,000 support staff. So it’s not just the athletes themselves that are showing up to Tokyo. It’s people like me, the media. And I’m pretty sure they’re right in line with what we did, which involved multiple tests, very precise amount of time out. So you had to take a test within 96 hours of traveling, another one within 72 hours of traveling. It’s an incredible amount of paperwork. We had to submit these so-called activity plans that tell the Japanese government exactly where we’re going to be, all the possible locations in Tokyo and in the surrounding cities that we could be the first two weeks that we’re here. They had to be approved all the way up the chain, all the way up to the sort of Japanese government level.

For media at least, once we’re here, we’re testing every day for the first three days. We have these apps on our phone that we’re having to check in every day- temperature, symptoms, that sort of thing. They are trying to keep incredibly close tabs on everyone, which I’m not entirely sure how well they’re doing that. I mean, I just– It’s so many people, and they’re testing everyone so often. And it’s sort of hard to imagine that they’re processing all of these tests and actually keeping all this information somewhere.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what you’re saying about testing is so intense. And one thing that comes to mind is vaccines. Vaccines are not widely available yet in many parts of the world. So does that mean that vaccines are not required for the athletes?

HANNAH KEYSER: They are not required for the athletes, not even for the US athletes, and vaccines are fairly widely available back in the States. They weren’t required for anyone. And not only were they not required, it doesn’t get you anything. I mean, the protocols are no different, regardless of whether or not you’re vaccinated. That’s true for both media and athletes.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Wow, OK. So are there rules for how the athletes are supposed to interact with each other when they’re not competing, given this COVID age we’re in?

HANNAH KEYSER: Yeah, they’re not supposed to be interacting much at all. I mean, it certainly looks like they have more freedom in the village than we do as media. And we cannot go to the village. But they’re interacting a little in the dining hall, but there are these plastic barriers between every seat, so you’re– Even if you’re eating with one other person, you’re on the other side of plastic. They’re being told to put on plastic gloves when they go into the dining hall, which– We’re a year and a half into this. We do know the science. And that’s kind of just sanitation theater. I’m not sure that’s actually doing anything to protect anyone from COVID.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, is there are a lot of masking going on there?

HANNAH KEYSER: There is an incredible amount of masking, yes. There’s an incredible amount of masking and an incredible culture of policing masking. That’s, I think, widely within Japan and certainly within the Olympics. I mean, even the IOC had to update their official protocols just to let athletes take their masks off for something like 30 seconds on the podium to take a photo, because originally, they were supposed to wear their masks any time they’re doing anything other than competing or training.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So one of the things that actually also was surprising to me is to hear that some of these athletes have actually tested positive for COVID since arriving in Japan. How does that reflect on these policies, all the things that you’ve just told us about? Is there room to be even stricter with some of these policies?

HANNAH KEYSER: You know, I’m not sure that there is room, which is sort of the whole problem with all of this. I mean, they wanted to hold these Olympics, despite the rate of cases in Tokyo being on the rise, the rate sort of around the world. We’re seeing new variants. And I think that this amount of positive test– I don’t think you could sort of crack down even further. I think that that’s actually sort of an important thing to keep in mind, is that we are seeing positive tests, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily because the athletes are breaking protocol. We haven’t had any sort of huge scandal– oh, somebody went out to party in Tokyo. I think it’s just you bring 80,000, 90,000 people together, and not all of them are vaccinated. And you’re going to have some false positives, real positives, breakthrough tests. I mean, there wasn’t a way that you could put in a sufficient number of protocols to ensure that this was a totally, 100% safe process.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So what are you going to be keeping your eye out for in this final week of the Olympics COVID-wise?

HANNAH KEYSER: I think there’s really two things. One is the sort of community rate in Tokyo. I think we’ve seen some indications that cases are continuing to rise. And that’s a real problem. I mean, you know, whether or not the Olympics should take place– And this is true sort of all sports leagues that are happening in a pandemic– You’re going to get a certain number of positives, if you’re testing hundreds or thousands of athletes. But what you don’t want to see is that that’s prolonging the pandemic or worsening the pandemic in the community that it’s sort of foisted upon. So, I think, in terms of evaluating whether or not these Olympics should have happened or whether or not it’s a huge mistake or a failure, that’s really going to come from what the rates are like in Tokyo at large.

And then beyond that, because people are testing positive, what effect that has on the competitive integrity of the sport. We’ve seen athletes have to drop out or have to get replaced at the last minute. Somebody could test positive right before a gold medal match, and that– We would start to feel that not only are these maybe a bad idea, they’re also kind of a farce if they’re undermining the athletic competitive integrity, as well as the safety of the city.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, well, definitely everything that you’ve said is making me feel like the stakes are even higher than any regular Olympics. But you know, thank you so much, Hannah. And I want you to stay safe out there in Tokyo.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: Hannah Keyser is a sportswriter for Yahoo! Sports. She’s based in Brooklyn but is currently in Tokyo covering the Olympics.


ROXANNE KHAMSI: Now to the other big science story of this year’s Olympics. Tokyo is hot. The city has consistently hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the games, with a relative humidity hovering around 80%. While the city has always had high heat and humidity in summertime, things have gotten much worse with global warming. According to NASA, Tokyo’s average temperature has gotten five degrees hotter since 1900. If you’re one of the elite athletes in this year’s Olympics, that means you’ve got to take measures to keep yourself cool and safe because trying to hit your athletic peak at the right time is already a complicated process, even without extreme weather.

Here to talk with me about athletic performance and safety amid extreme heat in this year’s Olympics is my guest, Dr. Scott Delp, Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University and Director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. He’s based in Palo Alto, California. Welcome to Science Friday.

SCOTT DELP: Great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So Scott, let’s start with the idea of an athlete peaking at the right time. What does that mean exactly, and what are the factors that go into making sure that an athlete peaks at the right time?

SCOTT DELP: It’s a great question. And there are a lot of factors. You want to peak physically, emotionally, mentally, so that you can really perform your best. And to do that, you need to train hard. But the key is to not over train, not peak too early, because over training can literally leave you exhausted and unable to perform, even near your peak. So it’s challenging because we vary between individuals, and we vary between sports. And there’s not super strong science to guide this. So it’s really a challenge for athletes as they approach the Olympics.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You’ve got to find that sweet spot. But what happens if an athlete pushes themself too hard biologically?

SCOTT DELP: So injury is the most common problem. When we overload, we can injure muscles, tendons, ligaments. And they take a long time to heal, a short time to injure but a long time to heal. And you might be just emotionally exhausted or not have the ability to focus. And competing is not just a physical event. It’s also a mental event, too. So it really is challenging to sync all these up.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I would like to talk about the weather. I know that talking about the weather is sometimes a conversation filler, but in this case, it’s actually something that’s of huge consequence, right? There’s extreme weather conditions athletes are facing in this year’s Olympics. Not only is it very, very hot in Tokyo, there’s also very high humidity. So how do these factors affect the human body?

SCOTT DELP: They affect the body profoundly, and I think you pointed out something really important– that it’s not just hot, it’s also humid. And there’s a big difference when we have both of those things. Humans cool ourselves by evaporating sweat from the surfaces of our bodies. And we do that actually quite well. We have lots of surface on which we can sweat, and when we have that liquid on the outside of our body and it evaporates, that takes a lot of energy and that sucks the heat out of our body.

The problem is that it’s very difficult to do that when there’s high humidity. We sweat but the sweat doesn’t evaporate, so we’re not shedding heat like we would if it were hot and dry. And in Tokyo, it’s hot and humid. So we’re sweating but the sweat isn’t evaporating, so we’re not cooling ourselves very well. And when that happens, it actually can raise the core temperature of your body. And that can be quite dangerous. You see some athletes collapsing because of heat exhaustion and even heat stroke.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: You know, but we’re humans and we’re pretty ingenious sometimes. And I think what we’ve seen at the Olympics is there are some athletes using cold vests or ice packs before and during competition. Are there other ways that heat and humidity can be mitigated in terms of its effect?

SCOTT DELP: There are. It’s interesting. The best radiators in our body are our hands and our feet and our head. So cooling our hands or cooling our feet is the most effective way to drop your core temperature. So if you put your hands or feet in an ice bucket, that works really well. I’ve seen people putting ice on their wrists, and that can be effective but that’s basically cooling the pipes going to the radiators. The radiators are the hands and the feet. So you really want to cool the radiators. That would be very effective.

On the ice vests, if they’re tightly fitting and really transferring a lot of heat out of the body into the ice of the vest, that can be effective. But you have to watch out– If you’re just cooling the skin and shutting down the capillaries there– the small blood vessels that are there to help you shed heat– you actually might continue to raise the core temperature while you’re cooling the skin. So you have to watch out and make sure you’re hitting the right balance.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It reminds me, I went to tennis camp, which is hilarious if you’ve ever seen me play tennis because I cannot. And I remember the very wise, aged– the head of the camp– telling us if we ever got hot on those courts to go run our wrists under cold water. So are you debunking what he told us back then many decades ago?

SCOTT DELP: Well, so it can work. But it doesn’t work as well as dunking your hands in cold water or dunking your feet in cold water. That’s where your body really radiates a lot of energy and you can cool yourself– If you cool the blood in your hands, then when it goes back to your heart, then you spread that cooled blood all over your body.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I’m Roxanne Khamsi, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

So are there any summer sports– because there are a lot of them at the Olympics– that require more heat prep than others?

SCOTT DELP: There are. Long-duration sports, like the triathlon, the marathon, if you’re out there on the soccer field for an hour and a half or two hours, they really require heat training. And training in heat prior to then trying to perform in heat, it really works. There are a number of adaptations that come into play, that if you train in heat, you’ll be better adapted and better able to perform, especially for those long-duration events. If it’s a short-duration event, it might affect your performance, but it’s not going to be dangerous.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Yeah, I can imagine, especially if you’re running a marathon or something like, that you’ve just got to be super careful about getting too hot.

SCOTT DELP: One thing they are doing– I’ve seen this in the marathon, and I think it’s a good idea– instead of drinking water, they’re drinking slushies. So there’s a little bit of ice in there. And to put that ice into your core and then your body has to melt the ice, so the energy associated with the melting of ice can really dissipate a lot of heat– so I actually have seen that, and I think it’s a really good idea in these high-heat situations.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: I think we’re getting very close here to a scientific endorsement of ice cream. But I’ll move on to the last couple of questions here, which is we know that athletes are just reaching heights and speeds that we’ve never seen before. They’re really showing us all the humans can do, but climate change is getting worse and worse. We’re seeing the planet warm. So is it getting harder than ever to be an elite athlete, given the warming planet?

SCOTT DELP: Well, heat certainly can degrade our performance. In a place like Tokyo during July and August with high heat and high humidity, it not only can degrade performance but also be dangerous. So I think one of the things we have to think about with global climate change is when we hold these events and where we hold these events because holding them in places that are high heat and high humidity, we really shouldn’t be exposing athletes to that kind of risk. So I think that’s going to be an important consideration going forward for these global events, is where and when we hold them.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: It’s a fantastic point. So we’re talking about the Olympics here, but heat and humidity are also going to impact you and me, right? So given that, is there something that we can glean from studying the science of performance that might help us?

SCOTT DELP: It really can. Almost all of what we know about health is from studying diseases, and we’ve just launched this new scientific partnership called the Human Performance Alliance. And we’re taking the opposite approach. We’re studying peak performance with the goal of enabling all people to achieve optimal health and well-being. You can imagine, for example, to study how an athlete can cool themselves, they’re actually quite trained and very good at it. But there are individuals that, as we age for example, we aren’t as good at shedding heat. So to see the biological mechanisms that athletes use to cool themselves during physical exertion and understanding that can actually help all of us to have a better approach to maintaining our body temperature.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: So I think what you’re saying is we’re going to see slushies for seniors?

SCOTT DELP: That’s not a bad idea, actually. It’s a big problem when cities get hot.

ROXANNE KHAMSI: Well, I hear the ice cream trucks coming in. That’s all the time we have for now. I’d like to thank my guest, Dr. Scott Delp, Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University and Director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. He’s based in Palo Alto, California

SCOTT DELP: Thanks so much, Roxanne. It’s been great to be with you.

Copyright © 2021 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Kathleen Davis

Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.

About Roxanne Khamsi

Roxanne Khamsi is a science writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

Explore More