As the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics approach, the burning question on every endurance athlete’s lips actually relates to the painful burning they’re feeling in their throats: How the heck do we compete in all that smog?
Beijing’s pollution is largely due to vehicle exhaust, with coal-fueled factories and particles from construction projects exacerbating the situation. Chinese officials vow to have Beijing’s air cleaned up in time for the Olympics. They will limit vehicle traffic and close factories leading up to the event’s August 8th start.
Olympic officials point to successful past events in the typically smog-laden cities of Athens and Los Angeles. Los Angeles pulled off a dramatic reduction in air pollution by instituting voluntary traffic reductions during certain times of the day. The Chinese government should be able to clean their air, and I suspect there won’t be much that’s “voluntary” about the restrictions.
Olympic athletes, many of whom have competed in Beijing’s noxious air in the past, have their concerns. Even a significant improvement will likely be a long way from “clean air”; pollution levels typically run five times higher than the World Health Organization’s acceptable levels. Although the outdoor endurance athletes will experience the brunt of the damage, Beijing’s air quality has even been a factor in indoor venues in the past.
Colby Pearce, 35, an Olympic hopeful in track cycling from Boulder, Colo., said he saw smog floating inside the velodrome in Beijing. His throat became scratchy and he developed bronchitis, he said, because of air pollution.
“When you are coughing up black mucus, you have to stop for a second and say: ‘O.K., I get it. This is a really, really bad problem we’re looking at,’ ” he said.