Lee Igel & Arthur Caplan | Forbes.com
March 18, 2013
The Tel Aviv Gillette Marathon scheduled for last week was supposed to be the centerpiece of a day full of festivities. But when a heat wave pushed temperatures into the lower 90s Fahrenheit, organizers and local officials postponed the race until another day. They did, however, go through with letting about 35,000 runners take off from the starting line for a half marathon and shorter races. Runners passed by the shops, cafes, and beaches along main thoroughfares, and in view of the modern skyscrapers, hotels, and hi-tech industry clusters in this Mediterranean “startup city.” But not all of them made it to the finish line.
Tens of runners fell victim to the heat. A 29-year-old man—a husband and the father of a newborn baby—collapsed along the course, was taken to the hospital, and later pronounced dead. According to reports, he was an officer in the Israeli military and an avid runner who was comfortable running up to 12 miles per day.
Medical professionals were prepared for the high heat. Just prior to the day of the marathon, the Health Ministry advised that the full marathon be called off because of heat and humidity. There was also an advisory that the start and finish times of the shorter runs be moved to earlier in the morning, before the really hot weather bore down on runners. On race day, personnel were on hand to provide runners with water all along the route and to treat them for dehydration on the scene or, in some cases, at hospitals.
Still, despite the heat, about 35,000 runners showed up. So did 150,000 spectators.
Training for and participating in vigorous physical activity, such as a marathon, is usually associated with positive health outcomes. But even the best-trained runners are bound to experience a range of physiological and psychological changes. Running for distance can put a lot of wear-and-tear on bodies and minds.
Legend has it that Pheidippides, the ancient Athenian soldier who ran the route that inspired the modern marathon, died from exhaustion—but only after covering the distance of a marathon every day over a ten-day period.
Nowadays, when marathons are run in a few hours on one day, deaths are unusual. A study published last year by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine included a look at the number of deaths that occurred in marathons run in the United States from 2000 to 2009. Among the almost 4 million total marathoners during that span of time, 28 of them—22 men and 6 women—died either during the race or within a day of completing it. Half of those deaths occurred in runners less than 45 years old. A cardiac event was the most common cause of death.
Human beings are pretty reliable when it comes to taking credit when things go well and casting blame when they don’t. Fingers get pointed anytime there is a death or serious injury that seems like it could have been avoided. Right now, those fingers are aimed at Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. The mayor, who expressed “deep regret” over the runner’s death, appears to have followed the advisories he got on the race.
But it’s also seen a purposeful upgrade to its sports infrastructure, as well as to programs such as a city-wide bike rental service, all to encourage more people to become more active. The marathon is as much a part of that effort as it is a mechanism to add to Tel Aviv’s culture and image as a “global city.”
Global cities don’t like to call off events or call attention to something like extreme temperature changes. That also holds true for city-states, especially as they try to make their mark on the global stage. One of those is Qatar, which is going to face a huge heat challenge as it prepares to play host to one of the biggest sporting events in the world: the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
FIFA medical chief Michel D’Hooghe has already said that he is concerned about holding the event in Qatar‘s summer heat. He thinks that it may be worth shifting the month-long tournament to the wintertime, even though the venues will be climate-controlled. It’s the activities that fans, officials, and players will engage in outside those venues that has D’Hooghe concerned.
In any case, the truth is that the prospect of death is a part of many sports. Marathons do not always cause people to die. But there are occasions when that happens to otherwise healthy people either during or shortly after running them.
Participating in demanding sports activities—or even watching or waiting in line to get into them—in heat that can peak at more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit clearly poses health risks to all who are exposed to the elements. Sports executives, medical advisors, and coaches therefore ought to be sending the message that athletic contests should be shifted to minimize exposure whenever it is far too hot and humid. That goes for both time of day and time of year.
It is often said that one of the points of sport is to encourage good health in all of us. If so, then sports officials and organizers need to pay much closer attention to the relationship between what’s happening with the weather and those who are willing to put themselves at risk despite it.