By Alan Baldwin
BISHAM ABBEY, England (Reuters) – The heat and humidity of Tokyo in August will come as no surprise to Britain’s Olympic athletes, even if they have never been to Japan and are more used to training in the cold and rain.
Many will already have had a taste of the Japanese summer by spending time in a room with 75% humidity and a constant temperature of 35 degrees Celsius at Bisham Abbey’s National Sports Center.
The seven-meter by seven-meter environmental chamber helps athletes from all sports prepare for what awaits them at the 2020 Games and is geared to reduce any competitive advantage the locals may have.
How long they spend on the exercise machines inside the room, the largest non-military facility of its kind in Britain and one of three such ‘heat chambers’ used by Team GB, depends on the sport.
“We try to simulate the event as much as possible,” Paul Gupta, a performance innovation consultant for the English Institute of Sports (EIS), told reporters on an open day on Monday.
“A sport like archery where you might be outside for eight hours, we’re not going to keep them here for eight hours but we’d do a longer session. Typically we’d come in here for an hour or an hour-and-a-half to give people a taster.”
It is all a far cry from the days when British medal prospects had to improvise with more rudimentary methods.
Don Thompson, winner of the 50km walk at the 1960 Rome Olympics, created his own heat chamber by sealing his bathroom with towels and warming it with a paraffin stove, electric heater and steaming kettles before donning a heavy tracksuit.
The last Games with similar levels of humidity were in Beijing in 2008, where Britain finished fourth overall in the medals table.
Since then, Team GB has risen to third at home in London 2012 and second in Rio de Janeiro four years ago.
UK Sport’s now-departed performance director Chelsea Warr said last December that the body was “quietly confident” that Tokyo would be the best Olympics yet for Britain.
Temperatures in July and August, when the Japanese capital will host the Games, regularly exceed 30 degrees and some events have already been rescheduled or moved elsewhere to beat the worst of the heat.
The marathon and race walk events will take place in cooler Sapporo, 800km to the north.
Victoria Downie, an EIS performance innovation consultant, said it was not just endurance and outdoor sports that could benefit and most had staff and athletes spend time in the chamber since the Tokyo program started in 2017.
“Even some of the indoor sports, we’re managing to get athletes in the chamber just to understand how living in the heat and humidity can affect their performance,” Downie told reporters.
“We’ve definitely been in the chamber with a lot more sports than we would have been for other Olympics.
“Naturally living in a hot and humid environment, you will find it easier to perform in that environment. But, with all the preparation we are doing, our athletes know that on the day they will be as well prepared as all the other athletes.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Ian Chadband)