Paralympic organisers under fire after extreme heat delays wheelchair tennis

There was a record set at the Paralympic Games on Friday, but one organisers would rather not have been set, after play was suspended due to extreme heat.

The opening day of competition in wheelchair tennis was due to begin at 11am on a sweltering day in Tokyo but matches on uncovered outside courts at the Ariake Tennis Centre had to be rescheduled after wet globe bulb temperatures (WGBT), which measure humidity as well as heat, exceeded limits set for athletes’ safety.

The suspension was the first of its kind after safeguards were drawn up by the International Tennis Federation, which operates the tennis events at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, before Tokyo 2020. It followed concerns that high summer in the Japanese capital would create conditions intolerable for outdoor play in such a physically demanding sport.

These concerns appeared to be borne out during the Olympics when the Spanish player Paula Badosa was taken off the court in a wheelchair after suffering from heatstroke in her singles quarter-final. Men’s seed Daniil Medvedev also reported nearly passing out during play. While players were given extended break times, however, play was never suspended as the temperature did not exceed the 30.1C WGBT set as the cutoff by the ITF.

On Friday, the heat had reached 31.2C WGBT by 10.30am. Play was scheduled to start at 11am local time but was suspended first until 12.30pm, then 3pm and, finally, 5pm. Play continued on centre court, which has a retractable roof.

An ITF spokesperson told the Guardian: “Due to the number of matches required to be played in the first few days of the tournament, adapting the schedule is complex. The start time of 11am was scheduled today, with an Extreme Weather Policy in place to allow for modifications and suspensions of play should the necessary thresholds be reached, as was the case today.”

The decision to have scheduled play from 11am at all will now likely come under scrutiny. Following complaints from players, including the men’s world No 1 Novak Djokovic, the latter stages of Olympic competition were shifted to a late-afternoon start. The ITF has also subsequently called for more days of competition at the Paris Olympics in order to avoid the hottest parts of the day.

“What we really need is 11 days and more rest for the players,” the International Tennis Federation president, David Haggerty, said this month. “We have to talk to the stakeholders and to the tours.”

Disabled athletes are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat than non-disabled athletes. According to disabled rights group the World Institute on Disability: “Assorted disabilities often make it difficult to regulate body temperature: for example, people with high-level spinal cord injuries have a lower ability to sweat to cool their body temperature; meanwhile, individuals with chronic health conditions may have difficulty with any physiological stress, which certainly includes extreme heat.”

With conventional temperatures set to remain in the mid-30s celsius on Saturday, play in the second day of wheelchair tennis competition will now begin in the afternoon. “Matches on Centre Court will start at 11am with matches on outside courts scheduled to begin at 3pm” the ITF spokesperson said. “We are continually reviewing the schedule, and start times with the IPC and Tokyo2020.”