Possibility of extreme heat during the Paris Olympics in July-August could adversely impact athletes in terms of their performance and health, according to a leading physiologist who contributed to a report published on Tuesday that highlighted the warning.

The Olympic rings are set up at Trocadero plaza that overlooks the Eiffel Tower in Paris(AP)

The report titled “Rings of Fire: heat risks at the 2024 Paris Olympics” published by the British Association for Sustainable Sport and Frontrunners, mentioned “the threat of a devastating hot spell is a very real one” around the Games in Paris. Temperatures could potentially surpass that of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, which are said to be the hottest Games on record.

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The report, in which climate scientists, heat physiologists and several elite athletes including Olympians have voiced their concern, stated that the average early August temperatures in Paris have risen by 3.1°C since 1924 when the city last hosted the Olympics. As per EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, 2023 was the hottest year on record and the streak continues into 2024.

“If we do get a heat wave in Paris then, it will be really challenging for the athletes and organisers to be at their best at the Olympics. A place like Paris can become an urban heat island, which accentuates the heat stress,” Dr Jo Corbett, Associate Professor of Environmental Physiology in the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at the University of Portsmouth, told HT over phone.

At the Tokyo Games, according to a 2023 National Library of Medicine study, 100 athletes suffered from heat-related illness. The degree of impact of intense heat on athletes depends on the kind of sport. Shorter duration events like sprinting, jumping and short-distance swimming will be less adversely affected, while marathon and race-walking events as well as sports like triathlon, football and road race cycling carry a far greater risk.

“Athletes who are exercising high work rates for long periods of time, there’s a greater effect on their performance,” Dr Corbett said.

Impact on performance — “athletes will run slower, or produce less power. So, as a sporting spectacle, that already has an adverse impact,” Dr Corbett said — is only the mildest end of the threat factor. The other end of it involves athletes who do not look out for protective remedies — “seek shelter, reduce pace during exercise which in turn reduces heat production” — before or during their event. There is no dearth of such highly motivated individuals at the sporting pinnacle called the Olympics.

“Those competitors may well override and ignore signals that will ask them to slow down. For those instances, in the mild range, we’re talking heat exhaustion and at the other end, heat stroke. Which, in the extreme, can be a fatal condition,” Dr Corbett said.

The report brings out experiences of athletes with that. Tokyo Olympian Hector Pardoe, a British swimmer, said he was “practically paralytic” when he suffered a severe heatstroke at the 2022 World Championships in Budapest. Japan’s Yusuke Suzuki, the 2019 world champion race walker, said she ignored symptoms of heatstroke during the 2019 Worlds in Doha and “found myself feeling cold, and having diarrhoea during the race”.

Tokyo Games had images of athletes fainting at the finish line and being taken away on wheelchairs. Russian tennis player Daniil Medvedev said on court “I can die” while struggling to cope with the heat and humidity.

One of the best approaches to reduce the effect of heat during competitions, according to Dr Corbett, is acclimatisation and acclimation. “Gradually exposing your body to heat, over a period of two weeks at least, to enable them to better tolerate it,” he said. A lot of India’s Paris-bound athletes across sports are either training in Europe or will soon head there ahead of the Games. “Not all athletes have the opportunity to do that,” he said.

New Zealand hockey player Hugo Inglis, gearing up for his fourth Olympics, spoke in the report about athletes not raising their concerns about the prospect of competing in excessive heat due to “fear”. From his personal experience of interacting with some athletes, Dr Corbett said most do not give the issue the “respect or priority that it deserves”.

“They’re more inclined to worry about their training, fitness, nutrition, peaking and less about the heat,” he said.

Rising heat, however, remains a growing concern in the larger Olympic world. “I think climate change is already having an effect on sports,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said during the IOC Session in Mumbai last year.

It forced IOC to shift the marathon and race walking events out of Tokyo in 2021 due to fears over rising temperatures. At the 2023 World Athletics Championships, the women’s 5,000m heats was moved to the evening due to excessive heat in Budapest, while Doha hosted a midnight marathon in 2019.

Scheduling tweaks for select events continues to be the more immediate and quick-fix solution to the threat of heat in Paris, said Dr Corbett. So does providing “cooling interventions” in certain sports that allow for breaks between periods of activity and designing facilities to ensure sufficient shelter from heat.

“But there’s only so much you can do with those mitigations,” he said.