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Pressure to move Tokyo Olympics open-water venue heating up

The IOC moved next year's Tokyo Olympic marathons and race walks out of the Japanese capital to avoid the stifling heat and humidity. Now some swimmers and an 11,000-member coaching body are asking that something similar should be done with the distance-swimming venue in Tokyo Bay.

Distance running events already moved from Japanese capital due to heat, humidity concerns

Athletes have voiced concerns over water quality and temperature at a marathon swimming test event for Tokyo 2020, as officials vowed to monitor the situation closely in the run-up to the games. (Kazuhiro NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

The IOC moved next year's Tokyo Olympic marathons and race walks out of the Japanese capital to avoid the stifling heat and humidity.

The IOC and the Tokyo organizing committee said the women's and men's marathons will run on back-to-back days, Aug. 8 and 9, on the final weekend of the Games. Both races will start at 7 a.m. — later than the scheduled times in Tokyo, where the women's race was to be on Aug. 2.

All five marathon and race walk events will be condensed in a four-day span to help coaches and team officials support athletes in Sapporo.

Now some swimmers and an 11,000-member coaching body are asking that something similar should be done with the distance-swimming venue in Tokyo Bay.

Known as the "Odaiba Marine Park," the water temperatures there were near danger levels in test events this summer for open-water swimming and triathlon. E. coli levels also plague the urban venue, and athletes have complained about the odours coming from the small inlet.

In an email to CBC Sports, Swimming Canada high performance director and national coach John Atkinson said: "Swimming Canada has full confidence in the Tokyo Organising Committee to provide a safe environment for Olympic swimmers. As always, athlete safety is of paramount importance to our team. We will always act in the best interests of our athletes, as we have done previously.

"We attended as observers to the test event in August and know how seriously the issues are being taken and that the organizers will be looking at all options for 2020.

"Our swimmers trust us, in partnership with the Canadian Olympic Committee, to advocate on their behalf."

Tokyo's heat again is the main problem.

"Here's the reality," Catherine Kase, who coaches open water for the United States Olympic team, said in an email to the Associated Press. "If a marathoner faints or passes out, they may get a few bumps and bruises. If the same thing happens to an open-water swimmer, the result could be lethal."

Water temperatures in the venue this summer were very warm, climbing one day to 30.5 Celsius. That's barely under the limit of 31C set by swimming's world governing body FINA. The temperatures were consistently in the 29C-30C range.

FINA rules read: "All open-water swims' alternative plans should be made in case environmental factors make the swim unsafe forcing it to be cancelled or curtailed."

Kase added. "We would like to push for a viable back-up plan. The straightforward answer is that we are not comfortable with the Odaiba venue."

Kase noted that U.S. swimmers are advised against participating if temperatures exceed 29.45C. She also said US swimmers can still choose to swim "and will likely feel pressure to do so" at big events like the Olympics.

"Our athletes shouldn't have to worry about health concerns as they're preparing to compete in the race of their lives," Kase wrote.

The venue also has water quality issues including E. coli bacteria and problems with water transparency. Tokyo organizers say bacteria levels fall within "agreed limits," on most days, though rainfall exacerbates the problem.

John Leonard, the executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, was even more emphatic about a move and placed much of the blame on FINA.

"We support a change in venue," he said in an email to AP. "The ASCA position is always to err on the side of safety for the athletes. FINA talks about safety and then does the opposite and puts athletes in harm's way."

FINA and local organizers say there is no "B Plan."

The International Olympic Committee promised last month there would be no more venue changes. It made this pledge after angering Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, who strongly opposed moving the marathons out of Tokyo to the northern city of Sapporo.

The IOC said the decision was made primarily to consider athletes who must run in the heat. But Koike's allies characterized it as "an IOC-first decision, not an athletes-first decision."

Cornel Marculescu, the executive director of FINA, spoke cautiously in an interview with AP.

Asked about the water temperatures at the venue, Marculescu replied: "I don't want to comment," he said, and suggested that elaborating could cause "problems."

"This is what it is," he added. "We check the quality of the water, we check the temperature all the time."

Marculescu and local organizers say race times could to be moved up to very early in the morning, hoping to beat the heat. That was also an early strategy for the marathons and race walks before they were moved.

Athletes in outdoor water events at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics faced severe pollution in venues for rowing, sailing, canoeing, open-water swimming, and triathlon. But heat was not an issue.

"We are following up with a company there (in Japan)," Marculescu said, "like we have done in Rio — the same story — with an official government company. We are looking at water temperatures, the quality of the water and all these kinds of things."

Water temperature was linked to the death of American swimmer Fran Crippen in 2010 at a distance swim in the United Arab Emirates. The autopsy concluded his death was from drowning, heat exhaustion, and included the possibility of a heart abnormality.

It was the first competitive death in FINA's history, and much of the blame was aimed at the swim body.

The United States and Canada both withdrew their swimmers from an open-water race in October in Doha, Qatar. The race took place in the same body of water where Crippen died. Temperatures were again reported right at the FINA limit, and some reports said they were slightly above the limit.

Fernando Possenti, the open-water coach for the Brazilian Olympic team, said athletes need to deal with the environment and not waste time complaining about it.

"Program yourself, adapt your athletes to this kind of condition," Possenti said in an email to AP. "This particular sport contemplates direct contact with nature and its variables. Heat and humidity are two of them."

The Odaiba venue was picked partly because it offers picturesque 180-degree views of the skyscrapers that hug Tokyo Bay and the bridges that cross it.

Television has a powerful say in scheduling and venue location. About three-quarters of the IOC income is from broadcast rights. The American network NBC has agreed to pay $7.75 billion to broadcast the Summer and Winter Olympics from 2022 through 2032.

In Tokyo, to counter E. coli levels, organizers have installed underwater screens that work as a filter. E. coli was within agreed limits on all but one day in test events this summer.

But the screens also appeared to drive up water temperatures, and organizers plan to install triple screens for the Olympics.

In a statement, Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said "we will consider operating methods that can help suppress water temperatures, such as allowing the underwater screens to float, and opening them when the weather is good."

With files from CBC Sports

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