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01 January 2020, 8am

After the scenes of distress in the Women’s marathon at the world championships held in Qatar last September a red alert went out to responsible athletic bodies that they had to do something to stop this happening again. But it wasn’t the first time and won’t be the last, argues Hugh Jones

Victims of the system

by Hugh Jones

At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004 the women’s marathon was run in temperatures of around 36ºC. Nothing much was done then so why was it a surprise that it happened again?

Athletics is seen as a summer sport so decisions made are bound to be flawed if a summer climate is unfavourable for any specific event. Venues for the Olympic Games and World Athletics Championships are chosen without concern for the wellbeing of endurance athletes who then have to perform in severely adverse conditions.

Athletics administrators voice concern only when criticised for their previous decisions. At the time they actually make those decisions they are carried away by their own rhetoric of “taking the sport to new horizons” and blinded to the wellbeing of a small and neglected minority of athletes who are bound to suffer as a result.

And suffer they did, even those who performed best: women’s marathon winner Ruth Chepngetich (KEN) said: “It was a tough race. I knew what to expect… I trained for this weather by running in the afternoon when the sun is up.” Defending champion Rose Chelimo (KEN) commented: “It was very hot today… much hotter than the one I finished in Jakarta”. Bronze medallist Helalia Johannes (NAM) said: “I have never run at such a time and in such weather. And I have never trained in similar conditions.” Of the 68 women who started the race 28 failed to finish.

Stung into the need to take action but still defensive of previous misguided decisions various palliatives were offered for the men’s Marathon in Doha. The IOC also woke up to the certainty that a similar situation will be faced by endurance athletes at the Tokyo Olympic Games this summer. Last summer more than 50 people died in Tokyo due to extreme heat of up to 40ºC.

So they decided to move the Olympic marathons and race walking events from Tokyo to Sapporo. Sapporo lies on the island of Hokkaido and is the northernmost prefecture of Japan. Temperatures can be expected to be about 5–6ºC lower than in Tokyo.

“Athletes’ health and well-being are always at the heart of our concerns,” claimed IOC President Thomas Bach. “The new far-reaching proposals to move the marathon and race walks show how seriously we take such concerns.” It was an implicit admission that the IOC had previously made mistaken decisions.

Words come cheaply but decisions previously taken speak louder. Olympic venues over the last 25 years have included Atlanta, Athens, Beijing and Rio de Janeiro. Only Sydney (held in late September) and London could be considered less than hostile climates for endurance athletes. Tokyo would likely have been even worse.

The decision to change the venue for the endurance events will likely be of some effect. World Athletics (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe claimed that: “We have been working closely with the IOC and Tokyo 2020 on the potential weather conditions… [and] on the proposal to move the road events to Sapporo.”

But they hadn’t told the Governor of Tokyo Yuriko Koike who described it as “a major shock… this proposal was made with no explanation at all until the last moment,” she said. “Let me clearly say as leader of the host city and the representative of the people of Tokyo, it is my wish for the marathon and race walks to be held in Tokyo.”

Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said: “The IOC and IAAF support the plan. Can we say no as the organisers? We have to accept this. It’s not about whether [the plan] is good or bad.”

The Tokyo Municipal Government did not concede easily: they floated a 03:00 start for the marathon. The IOC again claimed that their concern was for the health of the athletes – but this has always been something conspicuously missing at the time venues have been selected. Tokyo was only the most recent of these selections, the symptom of a flawed decision-making process.


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