Olympic Teams Prepare for the Dirty Air in Beijing

Chinese workers at an Olympic construction site in Beijing. Many nations' teams are taking extraordinary steps to lessen the effects of pollution.
Chinese workers at an Olympic construction site in Beijing. Many nations' teams are taking extraordinary steps to lessen the effects of pollution. (By Oded Balilty -- Associated Press)

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 24, 2008

BEIJING -- American runners are trying out face masks. Dutch cyclists will train in South Korea.

Fearful of the effects of air pollution on their performance, Olympic athletes are taking extreme measures to prepare for this summer's Games in Beijing.

Delegations from dozens of nations are setting up training bases in nearby countries and planning to fly into China at the last minute to minimize exposure to what they say is a hostile environment.

Teams from at least 20 countries, including Britain, Sweden, Germany and Brazil, are preparing training camps in Japan. Another 15 teams, including those from the Netherlands and Switzerland, will be based in South Korea. U.S. track and field competitors will be in Dalian, a Chinese coastal city.

In past Olympics, athletes typically arrived in host cities at least 10 days before the start of events to get used to the conditions. This year, some of the 10,000 expected competitors say they will come to Beijing just 72 hours before their first event -- raising the prospect of a fireworks-filled opening ceremony on Aug. 8 without many of the athletes.

The International Olympic Committee is aware that some countries have decided to put their final training bases outside Beijing. That is "not for us to make a judgment or comment," said Giselle Davies, an IOC spokeswoman. She said she was confident that this would not spoil the collegial spirit of the event.

"We have no doubt that once the Games kick off that the atmosphere will be there of all the athletes being together and bringing what's magical about the Games," Davies said.

Situated in a basin where smoke from factories and construction and dust from desert storms gather and shroud the city for days, Beijing has struggled to control air pollution for several years. To prepare for the Olympics, the city has spent $16.4 billion, moving the heaviest polluters outside its borders, planting trees, rerouting traffic and inducing rain.

Over the past few months, the Chinese government has vacillated on whether it would close factories or ban cars during the Olympics. The heads of companies in the area have asked that no action be taken, warning of devastating economic consequences if it were, while some foreign Olympic teams have pushed China to close everything for three weeks before the Games. The Beijing News reported this week that China could reduce traffic by half during the Games.

Recent measurements show that on some days the amount of smoke and dust particles in the air exceeds by three to 12 times the maximum deemed safe by the World Health Organization. So while some teams say they are encouraged by the progress, they are preparing for the worst. Jacques Rogge, the head of the International Olympic Committee, has said events could be rescheduled if the air quality does not meet safety standards on a given day.

"The magnitude of the pollution in Beijing is not something we know how to deal with. It's a foreign environment. It's like feeding an athlete poison," said David Martin, a respiratory expert who is helping train U.S. marathoners.

Frank Filiberto, a physician for the U.S. boxing team, thought concerns about Beijing's pollution were exaggerated -- until he came to visit.


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