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Olympics construction worker among dead as heat wave batters Japan

A construction worker died of a suspected heatstroke while renovating a convention centre that will be used by the Tokyo Olympics next year. (Video: Reuters)
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TOKYO — An Olympics construction worker has died of suspected heatstroke after falling unconscious as an intense heat wave batters Japan, causing scores of deaths and fueling worries over Tokyo’s plans to host the Games next summer.

Police told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that heatstroke may have been the cause of the man’s death on Thursday, intensifying concerns for the health of athletes and spectators at the Olympics, which are due to take place in the last week of July and first week of August next year.

The 50-year-old worker was laying cable outside Tokyo Big Sight, an exhibition center that is being renovated to serve as the media center for the Games, Reuters reported, as temperatures in the capital topped 95 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity exceeded 80 percent. Tokyo 2020 organizers said in a statement that the cause of the man’s death is unknown.

Across the country, at least 57 people died from the heat between July 29 and Aug. 4, while more than 18,000 were brought to hospitals and 100 are in serious condition, officials said. About 45 died of heatstroke in Tokyo alone in the week through Wednesday, police and medical officials told NHK. 

While many of the victims tend to be elderly people living alone, a 28-year-old man in central Japan is reported to have died of heatstroke on Tuesday after soaking up the sun in his garden to get a tan.

Tokyo 2020 organizers say they are taking measures to help athletes and spectators cope with the heat, from a specially designed main stadium that is supposed to channel cooler air across spectators and onto the track, to water mist towers, ice packs and shaded areas to provide relief to spectators lining up outside venues.

In the past, spectators have been banned from taking umbrellas and water bottles into venues, but experts warn that this could cause problems for crowds lining up on treeless streets to enter them. Organizers say they are negotiating with the International Olympic Committee to allow spectators to bring in water bottles.

Organizers have scheduled earlier start times for some events and pushed others to later in the afternoon to alleviate concerns about the heat. The men’s and women’s marathons are due to start at 6 a.m.

This year is not proving much better than last summer, when a heat wave killed more than 1,000 people in Japan and prompted authorities to declare a national emergency. A study by a senior researcher at the Japan Meteorological Agency concluded that the heat wave could not have happened without global warming, according to the Carbon Brief website.

The intense heat has also raised concerns about conditions for workers toiling away to complete Olympic venues.

Kazuko Ito, a human rights lawyer and director general of Human Rights Now, sent a monitoring team to several construction sites, finding many workers exposed to the scorching sun. Some wore helmets that only increase the effective temperature. Some, but not all, wore uniforms with small fans attached.

Tokyo’s intense summer heat forces dawn start for 2020 Olympic marathon

Before worrying about next year, “shouldn’t we worry about what’s going on right now?” she asked in a blog post written before the worker’s death. She expressed “serious concern” about working conditions.

Critics have also expressed concerns about a lack of formal employment contracts and long hours for Olympics construction workers in Japan, although nothing on the scale of the controversy attached to the hosting of the 2022 soccer World Cup by Qatar, where hundreds of Nepali migrant construction workers are reported to have died.

When Tokyo last hosted the Olympics in 1964, the Games were shifted to October, but these days international broadcasting and sports schedules make such a shift much more difficult — or less profitable — with broadcasters eager to avoid clashes with the American football season and European soccer. 

More recent games in Atlanta in 1996, Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 have gone ahead in the summer despite hot and humid conditions.

But critics say Tokyo and the IOC effectively colluded in that pretending heat was not an issue when awarding the 2020 Summer Games to Japan.

In its bid, Tokyo promised “many days of mild and sunny weather,” providing “an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.” 

The IOC’s Evaluation Commission acquiesced, noting in its 2013 report that Tokyo’s dates were selected “for climatic reasons.” 

The Games run from July 24 to Aug. 9 next year.

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

Tokyo’s intense summer heat forces dawn start for 2020 Olympic marathon

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