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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beijing 2008 - One year countdown begins - will the AIR be ready?

In a little under a year, the world of sport will descend on Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games. The Chinese have promised the greatest Games ever, pouring billions of dollars preparing for the Beijing Olympic Games – they’ve built the stadiums, the roads, the venues (often at the expense of the local residents – see this story), well in advance of the Games. But it appears they’re losing the battle on one front – the air.

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 Beijing in August 2006, there were reports from athletes that the air hurt their performances. But what is the evidence of impaired performance with pollution? Well, firstly, the Beijing concern is not a new one – Los Angeles, Seoul and Athens all had similar concerns, but through campaigns to reduce cars on the road, they were able to overcome any problems, the result being that we’ve never seen the world record holder gasping for air on the side of the track in the 10 000m event! The fear is that China’s massive economic growth will prevent this from happening. The Beijing Committee have however vowed that three pollutants (sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide) will be brought to within acceptable limits set by UN World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The density of particulate matter "will reach the level of major cities in developed countries" is their pledge.

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, Australia and Britain have already changed their approach leading up to the Games. Britian’s swimmers, for example, will only arrive three days (rather than the customary ten) before competition, doing their final preparations in Osaka, Japan.

Australia, for their part, sent their head coaches and some athletes to Beijing to ‘get a taste for the air’, and in response, have appointed an asthma specialist onto their 50-person medical team. They have also announced that most of their 500 athletes will be encouraged to arrive in Beijing a few days before competition, to limit exposure to the polluted air! There is also talk of living in areas with filtered air – obviously a massive expense, within reach of only the wealthier participating nations. Australian Olympic Chief John Coates expressed a lack of confidence that the problem would be rectified by the Games, saying “You won't be seeing too many of our athletes until four or five days before their competition”

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


Kailash Chand said...

I have a blog containing good information on global warming. Ozone has doubled since the mid-19th century due to chemical emissions from vehicles, industrial processes and the burning of forests, the British climate researchers wrote. Carbon dioxide has also risen over that period. History of global warming is very deep since 1850.