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Tokyo governor takes on Olympic committee over decision to switch marathons to cooler city

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike departs a meeting of the International Olympic Committee Coordination Commission in Tokyo on Wednesday. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
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TOKYO — The International Olympic Committee finds itself in a growing row with Tokyo’s powerful governor over its sudden decision to switch next year’s Olympic marathons and race walks to the cooler northern city of Sapporo because of concerns over heat.

On Wednesday, at the start of three days of discussions ahead of the 2020 Games, Tokyo’s Gov. Yuriko Koike said it had been a “tremendous shock” to hear of the IOC’s decision to shift races. She demanded a detailed explanation about why the decision had been taken — and said she still wanted them to be held in the capital.

“We have less than nine months to go to the games and are now entering the final stages of preparation,” Koike said, in a room packed with Olympic and government officials and sponsors. “We consider it an unprecedented turn of events for the IOC to make such an abrupt proposal with no consultation or discussion whatsoever with the host city Tokyo beforehand.”

But John Coates, chairman of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, stood firm, expressing his sympathy but offering no hope of a reversal.

Olympic officials want to move the 2020 marathons 500 miles from Tokyo over heat fears

The IOC said it took the decision after President Thomas Bach saw television scenes of marathon runners collapsing in extreme heat at the world track and field championships earlier this month in Doha, Qatar. Even though the races there started at midnight, 28 of 68 competitors failed to finish the women’s marathon and 18 of 73 men did not finish.

“This was a decision that was taken quickly,” Coates acknowledged. “It was a decision that was taken as a consequence of what we saw in Doha.”

Temperatures in Tokyo in July and August when the games will be held regularly exceed 86 degrees, with high humidity adding to the health risks for athletes. 

The IOC had previously moved up the start time for the marathon to 6 a.m. and race walks to 5:30 a.m. but has now decided that isn’t good enough. 

Now it wants those races to be shifted 500 miles north to Sapporo, where it says temperatures are forecast to be “5 to 6 degrees Celsius cooler [9 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit] during the day than in Tokyo.”

The Tokyo government has said it wants to see “sufficient scientific evidence” to justify the switch, while members of Koike’s own political party complained on Tuesday that no consideration had been made for the athletes who had prepared for the race in Tokyo or spectators who had already bought tickets. They proposed the race be shifted to 5 a.m.

City officials are reported to have even suggested a 3 a.m. start, but that would not easily allow for media coverage or helicopters to fly over the course.

Coates had earlier apologized for giving the Tokyo organizing committee “a bit of a surprise” over the decision,” but said it was taken to put “the health of athletes first,” Kyodo news reported.

He said he wanted to set up a working group made up of the IOC, the Tokyo government, national government and local Tokyo 2020 organizers to discuss the move.

“We absolutely recognize and we are so very thankful to the people of Tokyo for all that they have done,” he said on Wednesday. “We owe it to the people of Tokyo, just as we owe it to the athletes of the world, to make sure they are fully briefed on the reasons.”

But Koike insisted that Tokyo had spent six years since winning the bid working with the IOC and with experts in medicine and health, and had taken several measures, including “solar heat-blocking pavement, securing shade and studying the hours that the events will be held.”

“Much time and money went into these efforts,” she said, pointedly noting that the city had won praise from the IOC itself.

But the row can also be seen as payback for the way both Tokyo and the IOC blatantly sidestepped concerns about the summer heat when bidding for and awarding these Games to Japan’s capital back in 2013.

“With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best,” Tokyo claimed at the time of its bid.

The IOC’s Evaluation Commission even appeared to buy the claims without a murmur, noting in its 2013 report that Tokyo’s dates were selected “for climatic reasons.” 

The real reason for holding the Games in the summer, experts say, is not the climate but money: It is the most profitable time, to fit in with the demands of U.S. and global television broadcasters.

In 1964, when Tokyo last held the Olympic Games, they were held in October, but holding the Games in the fall would clash with the NFL, baseball and international soccer.

There were also concerns about the heat when Atlanta and Athens hosted the Olympics in 1996 and 2004 respectively, while soccer authorities have shifted the 2022 World Cup in Qatar to the winter because of the blistering summer heat there.

Public opinion in Japan appears to be in favor of shifting the marathons to Sapporo, polls show, although it is much more evenly divided in Tokyo. The host city sees the marathon course as a great way to showcase its charms and tourist attractions.

The marathons for men and women are set for Aug. 2 and 9, and race-walking events will take place from July 31 through Aug. 8.

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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