Olympic Heat: Canadian athletes doing their best to cope with scorching temperatures

·5 min read

TOKYO — Carling Zeeman had just finished her race on the first day of rowing at the Tokyo Olympics.

After taking time to cool off in Japan's searing summer temperatures — all while sporting one of the ice vests that have already become staples for many Canadian athletes at the Games — she approached reporters to break down the performance.

Before the first question came her way, however, the Cambridge, Ont., native politely asked for the conversation to be moved under an umbrella and into some precious shade.

Tokyo's blistering heat was a concern as soon as the 2020 Olympics, delayed 12 months by the COVID-19 pandemic, were first awarded to the sprawling city eight years ago.

Canadian sport officials and athletes took precautions. Plans were made. Training and testing was done to prepare for the harsh conditions.

Now they're living it during almost every moment spent outside.

"We've been here for three weeks now, so that's a huge part of it, just acclimatizing and getting used to it," Zeeman said. "We have a few heat strategies ... but I think a big part of it is just your mentality about it all."

The mercury soared beyond 41 C in Tokyo last summer, and temperatures have so far consistently hovered around 36 or 37 C with the humidity since competition started last week.

Athletes got a small respite Monday thanks to a humidex reading of 33 C, but that isn't expected to last long.

And while some sports have the obvious benefit of being indoors, many aren't afforded that luxury.

Competitors at the Ariake Tennis Park get to sit in the shade every two games when they switch sides as Olympic volunteers blast them with hoses attached to portable air conditioners.

"It was pretty hot," Montreal's Leylah Fernandez said after winning her first match. "There was no shade on the court unless you were sitting down. So that was definitely a difficulty, especially when you want to recuperate between points.

"But I've trained in Florida, so I was a little bit used to it."

Canada's softball team, which will play for bronze Tuesday, also spent two months in the Sunshine State getting ready for Tokyo.

"We've prepared very well for this heat and humidity," said infielder Jenn Salling of Port Coquitlam, B.C. "I don't feel like it's been a factor for our team. And if it has, people are handling it really well."

"We wanted to be able to take control of it and not allow it to be a problem," added pitcher Sara Groenewegen, another ice vest user, of Surrey, B.C. "Yeah, it's hot. But we've been able to play through it."

Trent Stellingwerff, a sports physiologist with Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, worked with Athletics Canada for the last 18 months in preparation for the Games and accompanied the team to Japan.

With track and field set to begin Friday, he was pleased with how the group responded during its recent camp in the city of Gifu, about a five-hour drive from Tokyo.

"The last few hard training sessions were all really, really well done," Stellingwerff said Monday in a phone interview as roughly half the squad headed east to the capital. "We haven't had any issues at all regarding heat stress."

And it's not just humans who need looking after in this sweltering environment.

Canada's equestrian team was in Florida over the winter ahead of the Games, but Tokyo's humidity remains a concern.

"(The horses) are for sure affected by the heat," said rider Lindsay Kellock of Newmarket, Ont. "The humidity in Florida was around like 65 per cent. And here it can get up to like 95."

The animals are not allowed out of their air-conditioned barns between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Teammate Brittany Fraser-Beaulieu said the situation is far more palatable by the time competition starts a few hours later,

"It's not too hard," said the rider from St-Bruno, Que. "We are competing in the evening for the welfare of the animals."

International Olympic Committee sports director Kit McConnell said extensive planning went into heat precautions, adding not all outdoor events have been impacted equally.

"Each sport has very sophisticated regulations," he told an IOC press briefing Sunday. "It really is sport-by-sport.

"There's also independent experts and advisers that have been helping Tokyo, helping us, and working with each of the sports to put in place all of the support they need."

Michael Woods, who finished fifth in road cycling over the weekend, said stifling circumstances played a "massive factor" for much of the field.

"I was shocked at how easy it was to get separation at the final climb," said the Ottawa native. "Everyone was cooked."

Canadian teammate Hugo Houle said a difficult course was even more challenging due to the heat and humidity.

"It was like getting out of the shower," said the native of Ste-Perpetue, Que. "That's how wet we were."

Responsible for 57 competitors plus support staff, Stellingwerff hasn't had time to watch much of the early Olympic action, but said he's yet to hear of any Canadian athletes suffering from heat issues.

He added the best thing anyone can do to avoid complications is an acclimation period of at least seven days.

"You increase your blood volume, increase your sweat rate," he explained. "Through those two major mechanisms, what you're able to do is to dissipate heat more effectively.

"You have more to sweat out, you sweat more effectively, your heart rate doesn't rise as much, you have more blood flow going to the muscles rather than out to the skin to try to dissipate heat."

Besides world-class, career-defining competition, there's a lot more for Olympians to think about in Tokyo than at a normal Games.

But at least for Zeeman, it's all about perspective.

"I'm generally a really cold person," she said with a smile. "I embrace (the heat).

"It's nice to not be cold for once."

-With files from Frederic Daigle, Lori Ewing and Gregory Strong in Tokyo.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 26, 2021.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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