Last week saw a celebration to mark the start of the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games and IOC President Jacques Rogge put a dampener on things when he suggested that air pollution could lead to some events at the 2008 Beijing Games being postponed. That’s right, postponed. You can read about this here, here and here:
So having spent all their money on the ground, turns out it’s the air that might undo the plans for the best Olympics ever. Apparently billions have been spent so far (the total budget for cleaning the air is reported at $15 billion): factories have been shut down or relocated, and plans are in place to take one million cars off the road to reduce his problem. They’re even considering banning cars with even and odd-numbered licence plates on alternate days! According to Rogge (and other exercise experts), the endurance events are the ones under scrutiny, including cycling, running, swimming, rowing – anything where the ventilation rate is increased for prolonged periods.
The picture to the right shows a "blue-sky" day (they call it this when the sun is visible - any where else, you'd see blue skies!) on a late morning in Beijing. Not exactly inspiring...
So it will be interesting to see how performances are affected. At the recent IAAF World Junior Championships, held in
There has been some research and scientific discussion of this issue, including reviews around the Athens Games. This review reported that of the main pollutants (ozone, nitrogen dioxide, particulate pollution (called PM10) and carbon monoxide), it was elevated ozone and carbon monoxide concentrations that would be most detrimental.
Symptoms of ozone exposure include cough, chest pain, difficulty in breathing, headache, eye irritation and a decrease in forced expiratory volume in one second. All of these effects are likely to impact upon performance, and several studies of cyclists suggest this to be the case. There appears to be quite a varied response between individuals though, and the other confounding factor is that your Olympic athlete is quite a different physiological ‘machine’ compared to the “normal” athletes who are tested in research trials. So it’s impossible to know with certainty what the effect on performance might be. One argument is that the level of training and physiology makes the Olympians less susceptible to problems, another suggests that they’d be more affected. No one really knows. Athletes with asthma will certainly be holding their breaths though (bad joke alert!)
The problem for competing athletes is that unlike heat and altitude, acclimitization is not really possible to pollution - this is similar to expecting that breathing in poisonous gases will eventually get better if you do it for long enough! The only solution is to limit exposure - you're far better off breathing less of the affected air. Speaking from personal experience, one of the first problems on arriving in a polluted city is that the airways dry up, and the pollutants cause major irritation, and potentially sinus problem. This can interfere with something seemingly trivial - sleep. Only trivial until you can't get any! Also, possible medication must be considered, and we haven't even begun exercise yet! So for athletes in polluted areas, the challenge begins before exercise starts, and then there may be other problems, not yet fully understood.
In response to this threat,
Let’s hope this doesn’t detract from the Games and the atmosphere (the good kind!), and most of all, the performances! But we’ll keep you posted and informed of any research, figures and science as it emerges!
R & J