IOC defends plan to move 2020 marathon to Sapporo

Tokyo (AFP) –


The IOC has defended a plan to move the 2020 marathon and race walking sports to northern Japan over heat fears, as local officials expressed surprise at the abrupt announcement.

The International Olympic Committee said Wednesday it is considering the move to Sapporo over fears that sweltering summer temperatures in Tokyo could affect athletes.

Sapporo city in Hokkaido, more than 800 kilometres (500 miles) further north, would be five to six degrees cooler during the day.

"For Tokyo 2020, it came as a bit of surprise and I understand that," John Coates, chairman of the IOC's Coordination Commission, told Japan's Kyodo News in an interview in Doha.

"But the problem is that you can't leave this up in the air," he said.

"We had to move quickly and we didn't want speculation, we didn't want rumour and it was better to come out and say what our plan is."

"We want the athletes to have every opportunity to perform at their best. We now know that that's not possible in that heat (in Tokyo)," he said.

Officials in both Tokyo and Hokkaido said they had not been consulted on the decision, but broadly welcomed the move.

"I was very surprised that the IOC specifically mentioned Sapporo but at the same time I feel honoured," Sapporo mayor Katsuhiro Akimoto told reporters on Thursday.

Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike said the IOC's decision came as a surprise and she would be seeking more information.

"It is a very unexpected announcement. We know for a fact that many local (Tokyo) residents are very excited and making preparations for it," Koike said.

"I wish to discuss what is the best from (all standpoints)," she said.

Local media even quoted Koike suggesting the IOC might consider moving events to a string of northern islands Japan contests with Russia, in an apparent dig at the unexpected decision.

Last summer, nearly 93,000 people sought emergency care for heatstroke across Japan, with 159 dying. Most of these cases took place during the period that the summer Olympics will take place.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October to avoid the heat of the summer and the issue has quickly become the major headache for organisers, who have otherwise won praise for their preparations.

Organisers had already brought forward the start time for several events including the marathon and rolled out a variety of anti-heat measures including artificial snow.

However, recent test events did little to cool fears, with a French triathlete treated for heatstroke and several spectators taken ill at a rowing trial.