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Is The Future Of The Olympic Games In Jeopardy Due To Climate Change?

The future of the Summer Olympic Games may be in jeopardy, according to a new study, due to the rising temperature and humidity stemming from climate change.

The health concerns surrounding attending Olympic athletes has been the subject of much scrutiny and commentary for both the Beijing and the Rio Summer Olympic Games. Rampant air pollution issues in China, and polluted water and the Zika virus in Rio have forced attending athletes and their home countries to dedicate ever more attention to health concerns in preparation for what should be the world’s greatest sporting event.

A new commentary published in The Lancet, entitled The last Summer Olympics? Climate change, health and work outdoors, authored by UC Berkeley professors Kirk Smith and John Balmes, Alistair Woodward of the University of Auckland, and Cindy Chang, the physician in charge of UC Berkeley’s athletic teams and the chief medical officer for Team USA at the 2012 London Olympics (among others), concludes that only eight Northern Hemisphere cities outside of Western Europe are likely to have temperatures cool enough to host the Summer Olympics beyond 2085.

The new commentary, which is part of a larger climate change study and ranges well beyond climate change’s impact on the Olympics, examining the relationship between health and productivity in the face of global climate change, spins off a timely look into the viability of future Olympic sites based on a measurement that combines temperature, humidity, heat radiation, and wind — what the authors termed their wetbulb globe temperature. The researchers used two climate models to predict rising temperatures over the remainder of this century, and applied those results to the current safety protocols used by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to determine a city’s viability of hosting the Games.

“Climate change could constrain the Olympics going forward,” said Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “And not just because of rising sea levels.”

The study, which focused primarily on the Northern Hemisphere, used several protocols which are part of the current methodology used by the IOC in judging a city’s viability to host the Summer Olympic Games. For example, the authors findings assumed that any city which would have a more than 10% chance of cancelling a marathon on short notice would not be a viable host city.

“If you’re going to be spending billions of dollars to host an event, you’re going to want have a level of certainty that you’re not going to have to cancel it at the last minute,” Smith explained.

This same 10% criterion is already used by the IOC in judging potential sites for the Winter Olympic Games — where host cities with a 10% chance or higher of not having enough snow or cold enough temperatures have their bids marked down.

Thus, cities such as Istanbul, Madrid, Rome, Paris, and Budapest will all be unfit by 2085 to host the Olympics, with temperatures too hot to ensure athlete safety. Only eight out of 543 cities outside of Western Europe were considered “low risk” — including St. Petersburg, Russia; Riga, Latvia; Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; and Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia; Calgary and Vancouver, Canada; San Francisco, United States. Western Europe itself is home to 25 “low risk” cities.

Taking the current measurements to their 22nd century extreme, only Belfast and Dublin of Ireland, and Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, in the Northern Hemisphere could host the games.

“Climate change is going to force us to change our behavior from the way things have always been done,” concluded Smith. “This includes sending your kids outside to play soccer or going out for a jog. It is a substantially changing world. If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?”

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