UMass Study Points To Possible Heat Problems at Olympics

July 18, 1996

Umass study points to heat problems at Olympics
JULY 17,1996
CONTACT: STEVEN BEEBER, (413) 545-0444


AMHERST, Mass. When University of Massachusetts exercise scientist Patty Freedson conducted a study of Olympians at pre-game trials in Atlanta last April, she was interested in seeing how the heat and humidity would affect the players at the summer games.

Now with the Olympics only a few days away, Freedson has a serious forecast for the athletes. Be prepared to be hot, she says. And don't be surprised if that affects your performance.

"I'm not saying the athletes are going to be dropping dead in their tracks," Freedson says. "Still, there's no denying that the heat will be a factor in Atlanta. And there's no denying that some of the remedies being discussed may not work."

One of these remedies, blowing air over water with fans so as to douse the athletes with cool mists of spray, in fact could backfire, Freedson says.

"While the psychological effect of a quick spritz may be positive and 'feel' good, physiologically it may be counterproductive," Freedson says. "The reason for this is that the water causes the skin's blood vessels to constrict, when they should be dilated to release the body's heat, and that makes some of the heat return to the 'core' of the body."

Freedson studied the effects of heat back in April when she led a team of exercise scientists and graduate students from the University to monitor the U.S. field hockey team in Atlanta as it played test matches against Great Britain and Spain.

Employing technology that had only recently been developed, Freedson and her team found that heat was a serious factor to consider even in the spring. Moreover, they found that this heat would become even more detrimental come summer. And that the intensity and number of games to be played then would make the matter even more serious.

"When you play in high heat and humidity, the body sweats profusely as part of the cooling process," Freedson says. "As a result, you have to restore the body's fluids and that takes a conscious effort by the participant. We found that though the players thought they were drinking enough, many were still far below their normal hydration levels. And this was in the spring during the trials, a time that barely compares to the summer Olympics."

Freedson stresses that neither the field hockey team nor the coaches are responsible in any way for these potential problems. And she adds that it is quite possible most players will perform without being noticeably affected.

Still, she does say that there is no denying that there is the possibility some will clearly feel the effects of the heat. And she says that part of the reason for this is the punishing schedule some of the Olympians will be forced to endure.

"The field hockey team will be playing at least seven games at the Olympics, and many of these will be played on consecutive days," Freedson says. "When we studied the team in April they were playing only two games and having trouble returning to their normal hydration levels by the second day. So you can see that when the actual Olympics occur, the potential for problems will be greatly multiplied."

Add to this a heat and humidity level considerably higher than that in April and one can see why Freedson has her concerns. As she says, when she and her team conducted their study it was 70 degrees and the humidity level in Atlanta was about 30 percent. When the Olympics take place it is expected to be at least 80 to 90 degrees in the city and the humidity level is expected to be about 80 to 90 percent.

Freedson points out that only five years ago it would have been impossible to collect the data acquired in this study because the technology the team used did not yet exist. Primarily, this technology consisted of miniaturized, feather-light sensors used to monitor movement, heart rate, and "core" temperature of the athletes. Also employed were computers and videotapes which helped to manage the information as it was being collected.

While Freedson cannot release the final results of the study until it is officially published later this year, she says many of the preliminary findings are quite clear.

"It's going to be interesting to see how things actually go these coming weeks," Freedson says. "I'm not trying to be sensationalist, and it could be there will be no problems. But the indications are there will be some effects. And these will be interesting to observe."
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Editor's note: Professor Freedson may be reached at her office (413) 545-0988, home (413) 323-0907, or e-mailed at

University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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