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Saturday, November 10, 2007

"Dear Olympic athletes: Please pick up your face mask on the way to the start line"

Or better still, how about "Sorry Olympic athletes, we are going to reschedule your event to another day, because the pollution in Beijing is so bad, it might be dangerous for you to compete"?

OK, we're making light of a potentially serious situation here, but there is growing concern over the potential problems posed by pollution in Beijing leading up to the Olympic Games next year.

Three months ago, we did a post describing some of the pollution problems the athletes may face in Beijing. In that post, we discussed which chemicals/pollutants posed the biggest problems, and what those problems might be for the elite runners. The athletes most at risk are, as one would expect, the endurance athletes who are put through prolonged exposure with high ventilatory rates. In fact, so concerned were the IOC chiefs that Jacques Rogge, head of the IOC, even suggested that certain competitions "might be postponed or delayed to another day."

In response to that threat (which has, admittedly, been known for some time), the Beijing Olympic Committee promised some drastic interventions. The allocated between $12 and $15 billion to the "clean Beijing's air" campaign, taking steps including shutting down of factories, and even banning cars with even and odd-numbered licence plates on alternate days! So has this attempt worked? Jump ahead three months.

Latest reports - it's not getting any better

In the latest developments, about two weeks ago, the day after an "Environmental forum" to reassure athletes that the air quality would be adequate, the pollution was so bad that flights had to be delayed due to poor visibility, children and elderly people were warned to stay indoors and the Weather Bureau issued a suggestion to "Wear a face mask if you go out"! (Story here). The pictures below show the situation in Beijing. In fact, visibility was down to 50m! Can you imagine the great TV coverage of the cycling, triathlon and marathon events?

But the Chinese say they have it under control

Still, Beijing are putting on their game-face, arguing that the pollution situation is under control. This despite the fact that recent reports from the United Nations suggest that the problem is getting worse, not better. Yet still, some of the bigger factories (major 'culprits' in the air quality situation) have decided to go back on an initial decision to slow down operations. The LOC have also apparently reversed a decision made earlier to close down factories for the duration of competition in next year's games. And the single biggest polluter, a company called Capital Steel, were initially due to relocate to another city before the Games, but will now continue operations throughout the year AND the Games.

These are not the responses of an LOC concerned about the growing pressure placed on them by the IOC to take action. In a speech two weeks ago, Rogge said that "Time may be running out. The conditions required for the athletes competing in endurance disciplines might not be met 100 per cent on a given day." This sentiment has been echoed by other IOC delegates, but for political reasons, there is a general reluctance to openly criticize the Beijing LOC. In fact, when Rogge addressed Chinese officials at the Environmental Forum in Beijing a few weeks ago, the concerns over the air quality were left out of the presented speech, but remained in the published version, circulated later.

Or perhaps the pressure from IOC is deemed less important than the pressure from the factories, companies and politicians, for whom relocation, reduced levels of operation and possible closure would have massive economic implications? I have little doubt that this pressure carries more weight than that of the IOC. And given the fact that there is no real evidence to know what constitutes "SAFE" when it comes to elite athletes competing at high intensity, the Beijing LOC have an escape clause, because all they need to do is meet some "acceptable limits" decided upon based on studies of general health. It's not difficult to see the difference between long term impact on health and the short term impact on performance and acute health problems, but this fact doesn't seem to have entered into the LOC's thinking.

What about the athletes? Pollution plus heat equals a major challenge

And forget the poor athletes who have to run in the conditions. Kenenisa Bekele and Meseret Defar, Ethiopia's long distance champions, recently described conditions as "disgusting", and I know that many athletes are dreading the time they have to spend in Beijing.

It is perhaps the single biggest concern for athletes leading up to Beijing. Not only will the high temperatures and humidity pose huge challenges, but the pollution is likely to be a real factor. One could argue that it's the same for everyone, I suppose, but it will be interesting to see how the different nations plan to overcome this problem.

On the Sports Science side of things, Australia and Great Britian have already announced that they will take steps to limit exposure of their athletes. Great Britian's swimmers will prepare in Osaka, Japan, arriving only a day or two before their events.

As usual, Australia have begun meticulous preparations, and will have an asthma specialist on their medical team, have investigated the possibility of air filters in the Olympic Village, and will also delay arrival in Beijing for as long as possible. They also reported last week that all athletes will be fitted with contact lenses because "it is difficult for the atheltes to wear sunglasses because of the haze, humidity and pollution". So they tested all atheltes and will supply special contact lenses with a UV filter! In South Africa, I don't think we even know whether atheltes need glasses or not! I must confess this contact lens theory seems a little bizarre to me, and I'm sure some of the sponsors (Oakley, for example) won't enjoy that, but that's what they feel will help.

I have little doubt that many other nations, including South Africa will do the same, regarding preparation and arrival in Beijing. I'm interested to see what the USA does in this regard.

The final problem - heat. Does it favour the Africans?

The final problem, is of course the heat. This is something we'll devote a great deal of time to in the future, as it's a big area of interest for us both. But as a teaser, I will say that the African runners are not as comfortable as everyone thinks when it comes to running in the heat. The reason is that the Africans, though well adapted to the heat during the summer, are going to be arriving in Beijing having come out of the cooler part of the African year. This year, the typical day temperatures in Kenya and Ethiopia in July and August were in the low 20's, which is not hot enough to adapt to the heat. One must remember that if you are going to be training at altitude, it is generally cooler than at sea-level. This combined with the season means that many African athletes will be going into Beijing unaccustomed to the heat.

So in fact, if I had to guess, I would say that the likely marathon winner will be a Korean, Japanese, or better still, a Kenyan who has been based in the Far East for a long period. If I were the Kenyan or Ethiopian coaches, I'd be relocating my athletes to Japan for about 2 months leading up the Games, and definitely picking atheltes who have demonstrated ability to tolerate high humidities in particular. Altitude training is going to be far less important than heat adaptation. We saw this in Osaka this year, and Beijing will be even worse...


Click here to read our initial account of air pollution, including some of the physiological problems it poses for the atheltes