bad air at beijing olympics

Posted on March 12, 2008

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The Chinese authorities had better sit up and take notice.

The glory that they had hoped to obtain from hosting this summer’s Olympic Games in their capital Beijing, might end up being an embarrassment instead.

Athletes had been quietly grumbling about the city’s notoriously bad air quality, thinking up ways to protect their health and their lungs even as they worry about the impact of competing there.

AP photo

But an Olympic gold medalist had plucked up the courage to come right out and name the city’s polluted air as a reason for not competing in his pet event. Ethiopia’s world-record holder in the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie, caused lots of consternation in Beijing by citing the air pollution as he told the world’s media that he would not be defending his title for the upcoming Olympics. He would instead compete in a shorter race, the 10,000 meter.

His female counterpart and world record holder, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, has not committed to competing in Beijing either, similarly pointing to the Beijing air quality as a factor.

Other marque names that would probably be no-shows include the tennis world’s number one female player, Justine Henin, who suffers from asthma and is worried that playing in Beijing might aggravate her condition.

The decision by these top-notch athletes to skip the Beijing Olympics might influence more of those sitting on the fence to follow in their footsteps. That would be a disturbing prospect for the image-conscious Chinese.

Other athletes who have decided to compete in Beijing this August are trying various strategies to ensure they are not affected by the city’s noxious air. These include staying away from the city until the latest possible date and wearing a mask when they are there. But that is a potentially delicate prospect for the Chinese, as images of athletes swathed in face masks being transmitted around the world are sure to make bad PR.

They had been working hard to clean things up before the city goes on show, such as closing factories near the Games’ sites, banning cars from the road during the Games, and even engaging sophisticated technology to induce rains to clear the air.

But there are signs that the Chinese authorities had not been entirely honest in their zeal to show the world how much improvement had been made.

A recent US study found that Beijing’s claims that its air had improved was only possible because it had tinkered with the areas from which it collected readings of air quality. According to the study, Beijing had stopped taking into account readings of areas that were more polluted, instead including readings from less polluted sites. Tellingly, the Chinese authorities did not deny the findings, but still insisted that there had been advancements made.

Much as they want to ensure the Games would be a success, Beijing cannot play its usual cloak and dagger games and hope to sweep the truth under the carpet. These athletes it is hosting are not helpless nor compliant like its citizens. They would have no qualms about dropping out of the competition or even show up with masks. That would be a lot more mortifying to the Chinese.

Unlike how it denied the SARS virus’ existence rather than containing it, sadly leading to many more deaths than unnecessary, the Chinese government has to work a lot harder to clean up the air in Beijing, or come clean, before it faces its worst nightmare of the Games becoming a fiasco this summer.

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