A Look Back At Doha, Part 1: Handling the Heat

The International Olympic Committee recently announced that the men’s and women’s marathon and race-walking events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will take place not in the city of Tokyo, but some five hundred miles north in Sapporo.

Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, was quoted in the New York Times as attributing the change in venue to concern for “athletes’ health and well-being.”

The last two summers have brought record-setting temperatures to Tokyo, including an all-time high of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in July of 2018. Heat like that, combined with the high level of humidity (often in the 80% range) typical of the region in July and August, make Tokyo a potentially disastrous choice to host a marathon.

Sapporo was chosen as an alternate location because, according to the Times, “temperatures there in late July and early August are expected to be ten to twelve degrees (Fahrenheit) cooler than in Tokyo.”

Before you wear yourself out applauding Bach’s magnanimity for championing the “health and well-being” athletes though, keep in mind that all other events will remain in Tokyo.

Readers of this site might reasonably wonder how throwers will fare if Tokyo does indeed experience another heatwave next summer. As it turns out, we have a pretty good idea about that because the extreme temperatures that occurred the past two summers in Tokyo are similar to those that the athletes had to deal with at the 2019 World Championships in Doha.

In order to gain some insight into how throwers adapted to the heat in Doha, and will likely adapt in Tokyo, I spoke to several athletes and coaches upon their return from the Worlds. 

If the IAAF (now known as World Athletics) thought that they could spare athletes from exposure to dangerously hot conditions in Doha by bumping the start of the World Championships to late September, they were wrong.

During the ten days of competition at the Worlds (27 September to 6 October), the temperature surpassed 105 degrees Fahrenheit four times. The lowest high temperature on any of those days was 96 degrees. Making matters worse, the humidity level stayed consistently in the 80% range.

These factors combined to produce a heat index that regularly topped 120 degrees.

Qatar sold the IAAF on their bid for the Worlds at least in part by promising to provide an air-conditioned, open-air competition venue, arguably an obscene notion in a world beset by climate change. Whatever qualms IAAF officials may have had about encouraging the Qataris to move forward with such a plan were apparently assuaged by back room financial shenanigans, the details of which are likely to come out when former IAAF president Lamine Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack stand trial for corruption next year in Paris. 

Regardless, the Doha bid was accepted and the Qataris made good on their promise. Khalifa Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, was ringed at three levels by vents blowing hard enough to keep the humidity at bay and the temperature inside the stadium manageable. I’m told that it may have gotten as warm as 85 degrees Fahrenheit within Khalifa, but most athletes and coaches I spoke to agreed that excessive heat was not an issue during competition.

It was a big issue, though, as athletes sought to stay sharp in the days leading up to their event.

Typically, competitors in a World Championships or Olympics arrive in the host city well before the day of their qualification round in order to give themselves plenty of time to shake off the effects of travel and to get acclimated to their surroundings.

Most of the athletes I contacted showed up in Doha a week to ten days prior to qualification only to find themselves confined–because of the heat–to their hotel during daylight hours. After sundown, they would venture out to one of two practice facilities, the old Doha Diamond League stadium at the Qatar Sports Club or the Aspire Zone sports complex located next to Khalifa Stadium, where they struggled to make their final preparations in grossly humid conditions.

Rudy Winkler, the American hammer thrower, recalls needing “multiple gloves, towels, and a change of clothes” to make it through the evening workouts.

J.C. Lambert, husband and coach of DeAnna Price, had a similar experience, even though he was not the one doing the training: “I did not think there were places much worse than southern Illinois in terms of humidity,” he said, “But I was wrong. I was at practice for an hour and a half one night in Doha, and I was absolutely soaked. My shoes were sloshing with sweat. I’m out at practice at SIU for seven or eight hours a day, and I’ve never been that soaked.”

Ashley Kovacs, official throws coach for Team USA (which included her husband Joe) at the Worlds, described the heat as “unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” She said that at the nightly practice sessions it was common to see the ball slide right off a thrower’s neck mid-spin. It was so humid that, “you’d put the shot down and there would immediately be condensation on it. A lot of people were mad and flustered by the conditions.”

Kara Winger, who probably could have taught Fred Rogers a thing or two about staying positive, made light of the nightly practice conditions when I spoke with her after Worlds, suggesting that they weren’t much worse than what she’d experienced in Austin, Texas, or at a 2015 training camp in Tokyo which she called her “sweatiest practice in memory.”

She also found herself awash in positive vibes while practicing at the Doha Sports Complex. “I competed there at the 2014 Diamond League meet,” she explained. “It was my first Diamond League meet after recovering from knee surgery, which was a big moment for me, so getting to throw there again was an unexpected, encouraging surprise.”

Tom Walsh took a different approach in the days leading up to the men’s shot competition. He and his coach Dale Stevenson set up camp in Cyprus right after the Diamond League final and did not arrive in Doha until four days before the men’s shot qualification. 

“We didn’t want to be in Doha too long,” Dale explained. “With the lack of things to do because of the heat and the type of country it is, we knew we’d be hotel bound once we arrived there. Cyprus is in the same time zone and the weather is much nicer, so it seemed like a good idea to cool our jets there.”

Because of their late arrival, Tom ended up having to endure only two throwing sessions in the Doha heat which Dale described later as “shocking, oppressive, and inescapable.”

The question of when and where to warm up prior to competing was also greatly complicated by the heat and humidity.

At competitions like the Worlds, the host has to provide a warm-up facility outside the stadium as athletes are often given a limited number of tosses (sometimes no more than two) in the competition ring prior to their flight.

In Doha, the athletes were given a choice of two different areas at which to prepare prior to entering the stadium: the outdoor throwing facility at the Aspire Zone, or the climate-controlled Aspire Dome. Athletes were not allowed to take any throws inside the dome, so they had a decision to make. Knowing they might only get two warm-up throws once inside Khalifa, should they expose themselves to heatstroke-level conditions by taking some tosses at the outdoor facility, or should they limit their activities to literally chilling out in the dome?

NCAA discus champion Lagi Tausaga, competing in her first World Championships, took no warm-up throws outside of the stadium prior to the women’s disc qualification. 

Her coach, Eric Werskey, said afterwards that “Lagi reminded me that she didn’t take throws on the outside track in Belarus for the USA v. Europe meet, and she threw a PR there, so I trusted her.”

“Our plan was to do drills in the call room holding her shoe, then do a dry throw in the ring once they brought her into the stadium, then two full throws. If they had given her another, that would be icing on the cake, but you always have to go in with the mindset that you are getting two throws.”

“When warm-ups began inside the stadium, they set the clock at twenty minutes, but they wouldn’t open the cage for throws until about fifteen. They let people walk in and feel the ring one time through, then I think everyone got two throws before they cut it short to put them in order for the competition.”

Rudy Winkler wanted to avoid overheating at the warm-up ring… so like Lagi, he took no throws there prior to the prelims or finals. He did do some drills at the outdoor facility, but frequently retreated to an air-conditioned tent to stay cool. 

Also like Lagi, he was not worried about getting minimal warm up throws inside Khalifa, having “worked on feeling ready in my first few throws at practice.”

On the day of the women’s hammer final, J.C. Lambert estimates that the temperature outside of Khalifa Stadium was “anywhere from 100 to 110 degrees” with the heat index topping the 120-degree mark, so DeAnna stayed indoors prior to competing.

Kara Winger braved the heat and reported to the warm-up track prior to her qualification round even though that meant ducking into a non-air-conditioned bathroom to change clothes before competing. 

She was able to find an air-conditioned bathroom after warming up for the final the next day, but it was so small that she “had visions” of dropping her uniform into the toilet while changing. Such is the glamorous life of the professional javelinist.

Tom Walsh took no throws outside the stadium prior to the men’s shot prelims or finals.

One reason Tom might have felt comfortable with a truncated warm up was that he had been throwing very well in the days leading up to Worlds. According to Dale, “Tom was clearly ready. He threw PRs with our tracking shots in training, and traditionally he throws better in competition. Going by some of the marks he threw in Cyprus and the sessions we had in Doha, it was evident that he was in the best shape of his life.” 

Joe Kovacs has been known to take a lot of warm-up throws before competitions, many of them at a high level of intensity, but even he was forced to adjust to the conditions in Doha. According to Ashley, Joe took no warm-ups outside the stadium prior to the qualification round.

He did, however, take several throws (Ashley estimates about eight) at the outdoor facility prior to the final before reporting to the call room where he stripped down to his boxers and put on a fresh outfit. Once inside Khalifa, he took three or four more throws. 

As you can see, each of these athletes took a somewhat different approach to getting themselves ready to compete in the awful conditions they experienced in Doha.

Each found a method that worked for them.

Both Rudy and Lagi PB’d in prelims and advanced to the final. Kara got off a nice toss of 63.23m in the fifth round of the final and placed fifth. DeAnna dominated the women’s hammer competition.

And Joe Kovacs and Tom Walsh finished first and third in the greatest shot put battle of all time.

In hindsight, it is hard to say that there was any “best” way to handle the heat at Worlds. Arriving a week or more before prelims and pounding away in the ghastly humidity of those evening practices worked just fine for some of the throwers I spoke with for this article, but there were plenty of others who followed a similar schedule and then performed poorly.

Tom Walsh had a fantastic showing after chilling out in Cyprus, but that plan did not work for everyone. The German throwers also trained in Cyprus, but 2016 Olympic discus champion Chris Harting failed to make the final in Doha. His coach, Torsten  Lönnfors, told me that Chris had problems with his blood pressure during the qualification round. Like Tom Walsh, Chris chose not to take any warm-up throws outdoors prior to the competition, but the difference in temperature between the Aspire Dome where he sheltered from the heat and Khalifa Stadium was still enough to throw him off.

In the end, any lesson that might be learned from what these athletes overcame in Doha was best summed up by Dale Stevenson. “To compete at this level,” he reminded me, “you have to be able to handle anything.”

That advice should prove useful next year as athletes will face similarly daunting weather conditions while struggling to adapt to a much greater time difference (at least for those living in the Western Hemisphere) in Tokyo.

Also, the 2020 Olympic stadium will not be air conditioned. 

Tokyo, for that the planet thanks you. The athletes may not.