Tokyo Olympics 2020: Running with a mask?

Kristian Tangen

Unless the yellow dust is coming, air quality is unlikely to curb athletes’ performance during the Olympic games in Tokyo in August.

A lot research have not been done on this subject, but there are some studies showing that air pollution curb the performance of marathon runners and soccer players. And air pollution have become a growing concern during sport events. 

Famously, the Ethiopian world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie, declined the Beijing Olympic marathon in 2008 due to concerns over poor air quality. This, despite that Chinese authorities “had done everything that is feasible and humanly possible” to reduce air pollution, according to IOC chief Jacques Rogge.

Could poor air quality hamper performance also at the upcoming games in Tokyo, August next year? 

Over the last decade, Tokyo has taken significant measures to reduce air pollution. Since 2001, concentration of particles in the air have been halved due to regulations on use of diesel. VOC and ozone still pose a problem, but these pollutants tend to have less effect on athletes’ performance than particles. In general, Tokyo is a fairly clean megapolis. 

The biggest threat in terms of air pollution comes from outside Japan; yellow dust. This is a meteorological phenomenon where rapid winds in Central Asia and China kick up dense clouds of soil particles that are carried to Korea, Japan, and sometimes as far as the USA.

The yellow dust storms have become more frequent since the 1980s due to deforestation and desertification. And thanks to the heavy industry in China, the dust often contain heavy metals and other substances that are harmful.

The yellow dust affects much of East Asia year round but especially during the spring months. Coming summer, high humidity and frequent rain showers in Tokyo tend to reduce air particle concentration. Hence, if I were an athlete going to the Olympics in August I would rather worry about high temperatures and high humidity, than air quality.