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Monday, March 10, 2008

Gebrselassie out of the Olympics

Haile Gebrselassie OUT of the Beijing Olympics - the air pollution is a "threat" to his health

Dramatic news being reported today by news sources is that Haile Gebrselassie, Ethiopia’s marathon world record holder and multiple world and Olympic champion has withdrawn from the Olympic Marathon in Beijing, citing concerns over the air pollution as the reason!

Gebrselassie had previously mentioned the possibility that he might not run in Beijing, but today’s news represents a definitive ("99% sure", apparently) decision. Gebrselassie is quoted as saying the following:

"The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult for me to run 42km in my current condition,"

“My current condition”, incidentally, refers to Gebrselassie’s asthma, which he says forced him out of the London Marathon in 2007.

How bad is Beijing? And is this a justified decision?

It is a radical decision to take, particularly with all of 150 days to go before the Olympic Games. Yes, there are concerns over the pollution, and yes, it's likely that conditions will be difficult in Beijing, heat and humidity adding to the problems. We won't go into huge detail on air pollution and exercise performance now, since we've looked at the pollution situation in Beijing in two previous posts.

First, we discussed the likely problems the athletes will encounter in Beijing, and how some nations are planning to send athletes to locations OUTSIDE Beijing to avoid the pollution. That was amidst claims and promises that Beijing was doing all it could to improve the pollution situation.

However, a few months later, it was being reported that the air pollution situation in Beijing was actually getting worse, with many of the promises about cleaning the air (including the closure of factories in Beijing) being forgotten or ignored in the face of economic pressure to keep factories open. It has been a problem that has plagued the build-up to Beijing since last year, and this is the most dramatic story arising out of the pollution controversy so far.

A premature decision?

But rather than make this decision now, why not wait out the next three or four months and see how things develop? Consult with an expert or two (because this is an issue where you'd get a sixth and seventh opinion IF you really wanted it) on asthma. Find experts on pollution, as Paula Radcliffe did, and see whether there is a contingency plan that might allow you to run and challenge for what is really the only major title or accolade you're still missing?

The British Olympic team even announced that they would provide masks to their help their athletes breathe more easily if required. Perhaps Gebrselassie has done all this, and the advice he received is that there is no way he'll be able to run in Beijing. It's still almost unbelievable that he wouldn't wait out a month or two before announcing a decision that, in the words of his manager Jos Hermens, is "99% sure".

For the reality is that Gebrselassie has achieved pretty much all he can in international running, apart from winning the Olympic Gold in the marathon. It's a goal he himself has expressed on many occasions and it really does seem peculiar to me that he could so easily let go of the goal.

Instead, his manager Hermens is quoted as saying:

"He doesn't want to put his career in danger and he still wants to run at the 2012 Olympics in London. His dream is to run in two hours and three minutes and to be the first to do that. It's more important for him than to win another gold medal."

The pollution - an unknown quantity

Quite what the long term implication for his health is is difficult to know - certainly, his career would hardly seem in danger if he raced in Beijing. His marathon race, yes, but to suggest that his long term health would be affected is a little extreme. The worst that would happen would be that he could not breathe, and so he'd stop and pull out of the race within the first 10km, and live to fight another day - there's no reason to believe that his 2012 race is at stake thanks to the Beijing air of 2008.

Then again, I'm not sure that elite athletes have ever been exposed to the kind of pollution they'll encounter in Beijing, so the Olympics will be interesting simply from that point of view. Perhaps Gebrselassie tried to jog on a recent trip to Beijing, and found that he simply could not breathe - his mind may have been made up by his lungs!

However, it would seem to be a question of priorities, which is a deviation from the usual line given by athletes (including Gebrselassie) that the medals are more important than the records. Of course, it's Gebrselassie's choice, and good luck to him going for that 2:03 marathon (that is another issue altogether - we've discussed the chances of a 2:03 before). But it certainly is a shame, and hopefully, that 1% chance will still come into play and we'll see Gebrselassie on the roads, rather than the track, in Beijing.

If not, then it's the 10,000m event, as Gebrselassie has announced his intention is to qualify for Ethiopia's team for the 10,000m race in Beijing. This might be part of the reason for such an early announcement - perhaps he felt he needed to make the decision this early to allow him to adjust the training leading into the European summer. However, even that doesn't quite ring true, and I can't help but wonder whether the decision is really as simple as saying that he has other goals, and he is concerned over his health...is there any chance that in two months' time, Gebrselassie will announce that he's changed his mind and WILL in fact run the marathon in Beijing? It would not be the first time that he'd announced his "absence" from a major championships, only to be "persuaded" to go after all...

Suspicions and questions - a valid reason?

Such is the climate around international sport these days, that there is already lively debate and cynicism about the given reason. Does Gebrselassie really have asthma? Or is this an excuse not to be tested by drug control authorities? The problem with that "conspiracy theory" is that Gebrselassie has announced that he'll try to run the 10,000m race in Beijing instead, where he'd be tested anyway. So scratch that theory off the list.

There's actually a great deal of controversy around the drug testing issue and asthmatics, incidentally - for example, if you take an average sample of people and compare it to a sample of Olympic athletes, you find that often, the Olympic group will have a much higher incidence of "asthmatics" - if , that is, you choose to believe all the medical clearances that are issued giving them exemption to use inhalers (which are otherwise banned). But again, the fact that Gebrselassie is not pulling out of the Olympics, but just the Marathon, would suggest that the drug theory is slightly misplaced, on this occasion anyway.

The Olympic Marathon without Gebrselassie

As for where this leaves the marathon, well, it's dramatically weakened by his absence. His anticipated race against the Kenyans, whoever they chose, was due to be a real highlight of the Beijing Games. The marathon will be somewhat lacking its lustre if indeed he doesn't change his mind. So a real shame for the Olympic Games, and let's hope that it's a premature decision and that he announces that he will, after all, take his place in the race come August.


Related articles

Air Pollution in Beijing: Symptoms and issues facing athletes in Beijing

Olympic events in danger: Athletes will need masks in Beijing


adventurelisa said...

I agree about the long-term health thing... I doubt a marathon in bad air would have long term health repercussions. But, I'd bet that Geb - and the other athletes - won't come close to record times, or PB's, because of the air.

My good friend was out that way last year for the Sunrise 100km in Mongolia. He stopped in Beijing for work before the race and commented after his trip how he could barely run 10km. It's worth noting that he finished 3rd in the 100km (14h10).

I don't know whether the location and route for the marathon has been announced?

If it hasn't, what's the possibility that it won't even be held in the city and that the marathon, and other endurance events, will be held outside the city where the grass is greener and the air is fresher?

If the location for the marathon has been announced as being in the city, it may be worth changing if air conditions warrant it?

This seems to be the best option; it will be terrible to watch the distance athletes, cyclists etc coughing and spluttering along the route.

Lorenzo Coopman said...

I don't think the 10K is a serious option for Gebre, with all respect for the greatness of the man,even for the bronze medal he is an outsider. (Bekele, Sihine, Tadesse & Mathati I think he lacks the speed to upset those guys )
About the marathon : heat + pollution + tactical racing = not good for Gebre
Maybe we are nearing the end of a era, maybe even the greatest is getting tired. I hope he just gives us a 2h03minXX s marathon before he quits trying ;-)

adventurelisa said...

Me again... If I was Geb, I'd probably give it a try running in Bejing two months before the Olympics. If my lungs couldn't handle it, I'd withdraw. If I was feeling ok, I'd give the Olympic Marathon a shot. He'll be 39 in 2012 for the next Olympics... mmmm... another chance for Olympic gold may then be out of his reach? So this would have to be it...?

I certainly wouldn't want to rock up there on race day expecting that I'd only make 10km and then would have to withdraw. That's a psychological recipe for failure before you've even reached the starting line.

We could certainly be looking at a "slow" marathon time and could this be a situation where instead of the hare winning the race, the tortoise able to tolerate the most noxious fumes could stand a chance to win gold?

by7 said...

Gebre is a great champion, but in this case he is finding some silly excuse...
Every year, a marathon is held in Beijing and the times (especially on the woman's side) are remarkable (low 2h20s').
Beijing is a polluted city, but is London, New York or Milan far better ??

Steve said...

I have to agree with the group. Why not head out there in May and train for a month to see what you feel like. Why not start experimenting now in training with a few masks (like critically ill people wear in public places and on air planes) to see if proper running breathing can be achieved, etc.

Also, might there be other reasons for Geb's decision, which we're not privy to:
1) Huge sponsor deal related to 2:03:xx
2) A deal with Bank of Am. for Chicago -- hey, Geb's raced the Olympics, he's a world champion, world record holder, etc. He's done it all, so, what is his motivation these days?
3) Politics with the Ethiopian Olympic committee?
4) His asthma has gotten worse and he doesn't want to express that?

Also, great, great thought in TheScienceofSport's previous post on "What does 2:03 mean -- 2:03:59 or 2:03:00".

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone

It's quite possible that he already ran in Beijing - I saw a news article the other day in which Geb was showing some Chinese students some stretching exercises at a university in Beijing. So it's feasible that he may alread have tried to run there, and perhaps within the first 5 minutes, he was struggling, which might have made his mind up.

I still find the decision peculiar, particularly since he's decided that he will try the 10000m after all. While there's no evidence of this, I suspect that the 10000m event will be even more affected than the marathon because of the higher rates of ventilation. I think the longer exposure is a problem, sure, but it's the rate that I think would affect athletes more. So if the marathon isn't possible, the 10k will also be a problem.

But then this is all speculation, and who knows, this might turn out the same way as the World Champs in 1999, where he withdrew because "the track was too hard". As I recall, he asked the organizers to pour water on the track to soften it! They refused, he pulled out. But in the end, he agreed to run, perhaps under pressure from the Ethiopian Administration.

Maybe this will go the same way...