The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will be the warmest Games ever. The Olympic Organising Committee is already preparing for these extreme weather conditions by arranging test events, providing sufficient water access points and shelter from the sun, among other things.
Back home in the Netherlands, the NOC*NSF is also busy preparing for these extremely hot Games. As part of the Thermo Tokyo Project, six parties are working together in order to be prepared on all fronts for the battle against the heat. Inside the climate chamber at Papendal, for instance, where athletes can prepare themselves for sports in 33 degree heat with a humidity of about 75 percent, while still being close to their homes.
In the run-up to the 2008 Games, the Papendal Sports Center had already set up a climate chamber. This is a room where you can get used to the heat and humidity, but where you can train ‘at altitude’ as well. It was hot in Beijing too, but the temperatures in Tokyo could be even higher, says Sam Ballak, embedded physiology scientist at the Papendal Sports Center. “Two weeks ago it was even hotter than we all thought would be possible. We are also able to simulate those temperatures in our room. It’s now set to 33 degrees, but we can increase that to 42, maybe 43 degrees ourselves.” It’s not just the temperature, it’s the high humidity that gives an oppressive feeling, Ballak explains. “It is going to be especially hot in Tokyo, and this in combination with a very high humidity. This combination will make it very difficult for athletes and even for spectators. It’s going to be tough.”
Ballak sees it as a challenge when it comes to preparing athletes for these conditions as well as possible. “We look at how each individual reacts to heat. We are able to see how the body temperature rises in real-time with the help of a pill taken by the athlete. We use an inactive pill which only becomes active when you wear a strap. The copper in the strap activates a small coil in the pill. That coil transmits the data. This way you can observe in real-time how warm someone is and how the body temperature is rising.” The amount of fluid that an athlete loses is also measured. “How much does someone sweat and what is that sweat made up of? Does someone lose a lot of salt or not so much and how do you make up for that? Or how does an athlete react to cool drinks for instance? Incidentally, we use ‘Slushies’, that ultra-sweet drink that you can get in the cafeteria. It cools you down inside and is made from an isotonic sports drink. We examine the effectiveness of that drink per person in the room. Some people can handle it well, others can’t. And what concentration is advisable? We all want to answer these questions for the athletes. That’s where the individual benefits really are.”
There are two aspects involved in the preparation for the weather conditions. Athletes need to acclimatize, get used to the heat and then cool down on the spot, says Ballak. “Acclimatizing is done by raising the body temperature to 38.5 degrees at least one hour each day. If you do this for ten to fourteen days, you will be acclimatized and accustomed to the new conditions or the heat. This has been measured with people who are not top athletes. A top athlete will, in my opinion, be more likely to take around ten days. Acclimatizing does not necessarily have to be done in the climate chamber. This is also possible during training sessions in similar weather conditions, or in the days prior to the race. However, nothing is as changeable as the weather. You don’t have the certainty that it will get really hot or humid at a preparatory location. In a climate chamber, you do have that assurance.”
Knowing how your body reacts to the heat and high humidity is just a matter of finding it out. You can do this in the room, but the athletes also do it on a training course. Ballak went to South Africa with the Athletics Union. “It was mostly athletes who practised the short and explosive elements there, like the sprint. For them, it’s all about making sure they don’t get tired from the heat. That they are able to calmly keep on training before the race. They don’t need to be cooled down during a hundred meter sprint.” Cooling down during a race is especially important for endurance sports such as marathons, cycling and triathlons. “The approach to team sports is also different. With hockey it’s five minutes of intensive play and then some respite. In football, the playing time is longer.”
Together with the NOC*NSF, four knowledge organisations (Radboud University Nijmegen, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, de HAN and TU Delft) and the sports associations, the Papendal Sports Center is now preparing the athletes in the most optimal way possible for the those who are going to have to pull through for the Netherlands in the upcoming Olympics. “We are more facilitative in this respect. For example, TU Delft is looking into what kind of material a ventilator jacket should be made of and how much light passes through it. Or when you can perspire properly and what kind of T-shirt to wear. We offer the opportunity to assess, monitor and advise each person individually.” It is up to the sports associations themselves as to how they want to prepare their athletes. A sports association can make use of the climate chamber, among other facilities.
As an example, for pole vaulter and Dutch record holder Menno Vloon, the room is also important for testing the grip of his pole. Ballak explains: “You can imagine that quite a lot of force is applied to your hands once you push off. If your hands are sweaty, there is a chance that the pole will slip through your them.” Vloon finds it “very tough, but great to be able to test it in a climate similar to that of my important competitions.”