Walker The Talker: Olympic Games Will Be A Test Of The Body As Well As The Talent

The Games are due to get underway in a fortnight, with the climate being a huge factor this year
15:15, 08 Jul 2021

The unifying power of sport. Anyone watching that epic semi-final on Wednesday night couldn’t fail to have been moved by the rousing sight and sound of 'Sweet Caroline' being belted out by the swathe of England fans who were dizzy with excitement before the match and delirious with euphoria and hope afterwards. To use that well-oiled TV broadcasting cliché: “Extraordinary scenes.”

With 8 days to go before leaving for Tokyo, I am immersed in Athletics stats in my office at home. Getting ready to commentate on a major champs always feels a bit like revising for A levels, but of course I took a break to enjoy an amazing night of football. What was also pleasing was seeing the hints of other sporting festivals looming large on the post-Covid horizon.

Those reminders came in the ad breaks during the excellent ITV coverage. There was a brilliant trailer for the forthcoming Lions Tour against South Africa which I hadn’t seen before. I particularly enjoyed the moment Maro Itoje burst through a living room wall and posed for a picture with a young fan.

Alongside the Lions promo came two ads which alluded to Tokyo. One was a major plug for a car manufacturer associated with the Games and the other was from the National Lottery. Again, I had seen neither before. It’s possible that’s because I’ve hardly been watching any TV in recent weeks as I’ve buried myself in homework, but it could also be that those companies have been waiting until they knew with absolute certainty there would be a Games to promote, even though it seems they will go ahead without fans in Tokyo-area venues.

REDGRAVE AND PINSENT WERE GREAT BRITAIN'S ONLY OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS IN 1996
REDGRAVE AND PINSENT WERE GREAT BRITAIN'S ONLY OLYMPIC CHAMPIONS IN 1996

The arrival of Lottery money back in 1997 was a key turning point for British Sport. In 1996 Great Britain and Northern Ireland came back from the Atlanta Olympics with one solitary gold medal through Redgrave and Pinsent in the coxless pairs. With proper funding in place, four years later in Sydney there were an amazing 11. They included double delight on the final day when Audley Harrison and Steph Cook took gold in the super-heavyweight boxing and modern pentathlon respectively. That’s how quickly the additional finance began to have an impact.

Apart from giving many a new found ability to train full time, the extra resources allowed Olympians and those around them to start looking at what coaches and experts call those “marginal gains”. It’s a phrase which has become familiar in modern sport and the thinking behind it has led to innovative ideas and practices which previous generations would never have been able to access.

One element of England’s Euro campaign which Gareth Southgate won’t have had to think much about is the weather. If football is to 'come home' on Sunday, it will do so in familiar surroundings and conditions.

The same cannot be said for Team GB, who will have to perform in sweltering heat and humidity to produce their moment of glory on the other side of the world.

With much of the recent media coverage understandably focusing on whether the Games could or should happen, there hasn’t been much attention paid to the conditions which will greet the athletes on arrival in Japan.

In 2018, exactly two years to the day ahead of what should have been last year’s Opening ceremony, I remember seeing an article stating that the temperature was over 40c. Anyone who has experienced conditions like that will confirm it’s utterly stifling and exhausting in a way that’s difficult to describe.

I’ll never forget being in Osaka for the World Athletics Championships back in August 2007. One day, in between the morning and evening sessions, I went for a short run, partly to get some kind of understanding about how hard it must be for the athletes. I only jogged a few miles in the end as the air was so heavy I felt like I could hardly breathe. Even back in the air-conditioned cabins outside the stadium, I carried on sweating for over an hour and I was running well within myself. There’s no way I could have given a 100% effort for more than a few minutes.

Of course, I’m not an elite athlete and everyone who is about to board that plane for Tokyo will have thought about and prepared for the conditions which will greet them.   

But in order to understand more about the impact the heat will have on performance, last week I spent half an hour on Zoom talking to Mike Tipton, Professor of Human and Applied Physiology from the Extreme environments laboratory at Portsmouth University. His department is a world leader when it comes to examining exactly what happens to the body under heat and humidity stress. His insight is fascinating as you will see from the interview on this page. He also alludes to the long-term adjustment global sporting events will soon have to make as the planet continues to get hotter…a discussion both vast and sobering in its implications.

Prof Tipton also confirms certain athletes will have better in-built heat tolerance to others and that some will have such extraordinary willpower that their determination may temporarily allow them to override their body’s warning signs of overheating. Think Jonny Brownlee weaving his way to the finish of the 2016 World Triathlon Series Grand Final in Cozumel, Mexico when he was carried over the line by brother Alistair, or Scotland’s Callum Hawkins collapsing on the Gold Coast in 2018 just minutes away from being crowned Commonwealth marathon champion.

Prof Tipton also reveals the impact of the heat will be felt on all competitors unfamiliar with the environment, not just those associated with endurance events. His example of a bead of sweat trickling down a pistol shooter’s face at an inopportune moment is a reminder how far-reaching the impact of the weather will be.

Acclimatisation is obviously one of the key factors in helping to offset that shock to the system, but with the organisers' emphasis on minimising time on the ground in Tokyo, preparing athletes for what they are to face is harder this time round. All of which means we should expect more of the unexpected over the 16 days of world-class sport and also more medals for Japanese athletes. In this Olympiad the so-called 'home advantage' may well not come from crowds, but from their climate.   

On the plus side, armed with the expertise and guidance from facilities like the University of Portsmouth, our athletes will have the best possible chance of delivering their ultimate performance after a lifetime of work.     

Which is exactly what Gareth Southgate will be hoping his team can do on Sunday night.

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