Gold, silver, bronze? Nah. According to Bloomberg.com athletes the world over have smog on their minds when it comes to the quadrennial Olympics competition next year in Beijing. Gunn-Rita Dhale, Norway’s reigning world champion for women’s mountain biking had this to say about her future host city,
It’s probably the most polluted place I’ve ever competed. Your mouth and throat dry up because of the dust. It’s not good for the system.
Clearly, Ms. Dhale has never competed in New Dehli, the city with the worst air quality in Asia, according to the United Nations Environment Program’s 2006 Year Book. Beijing proudly comes in second on that list, registering 145 micrograms of particle per cubic meter of air, almost three times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum. A seemingly never ending construction boom and a six fold jump in car sales in the past five years may have something to do with the abysmal air quality.
China is well aware of this issue and is now in the midst of a USD $13 billion spending frenzy to remedy the situation. Note to self, add “clean air” to the list of things money can buy. Beijing set a goal of 248 “clean air” days in 2008, this after 241 clean days last year and 100 in 1998. Interestingly, Beijing’s threshold for “clean air” is three times the recommended level published by the World Health Organization. In other words, in 2008, city residents and visitors can look forward to 248 days of poor air quaility, and 118 days of piss poor air quality, your trachea be damned!
Every article about the Olympics now mentions the problems with Beijing’s pollution with some human rights reference always thrown in for kicks. Increasingly, the media have grown tired of the repeated tried at making Beijing’s air cleaner. One of the more labored attempts is coming later this month, with the four day ban of non-essential vehicles, starting August 17. The only vehicles allowed on the roads will be cars with even or odd license plates (depending on the day), taxis, buses, and other “special vehicles”.
Western nations and their athletes are understandably concerned. IOC President Jacque Rogge has even gone on the record saying certain events may have to be delayed pending air quality.
“Yes, this is an option. It would not be necessary for all sports, sports with short durations would not be a problem. But definitely the endurance sports like the cycling race where you have to compete for six hours, these are examples of competitions that might be postponed or delayed to another day.”
Team Australia for the first time, will have an asthma doctor, or an otolaryngologist (for you trivia buffs) on staff. To avoid the heavy smog, team UK and US will not even base in Beijing. The Brits will station in the once Portugese colony of Macau (1,365 miles away from Beijing), while the Yanks saddling up in an entirely different country, South Korea, both parachuting their athletes to competitions wherever they are held. As Randy Wilbur, Team US’ senior physiologist put it, “(we want to) spend as little time as possible in Beijing”, much to the disappointment of the city’s massage parlor operators.
As for our mountain bike champion Ms. Dhale, it seems Team Norway will actually stay in Beijing, as opposed to some far flung city, say Oslo.
“I’ll minimize the amount of time spent in the city and will stay as much as possible inside the hotel,” Dahle says. “There would have been many far better alternatives than Beijing. It goes against all common sense when it comes to doing sports.”
Summer 2008 can’t get here fast enough, the world’s anticipation is palpable.
Pete Chorba contributed to this story.