Olympic Teams Prepare for the Dirty Air in Beijing

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.

In November, he accompanied 11 boxers to the Chinese capital for a competition. On their first morning there, Filiberto said, the men returned from their daily 20-minute training run complaining of burning eyes, coughing, congestion and breathing difficulties. Only six of the 11 boxers ended up feeling well enough to compete.

"In my opinion boxers are probably the finest athletes in the world," Filiberto said. "But they didn't think they could make it three rounds in Beijing." Filiberto and the coaches were so alarmed that they ordered the boxers to jog only in hotel hallways thereafter.

Randall L. Wilber, the U.S. Olympic Committee's senior sports physiologist, has come to Beijing a half-dozen times since March 2006 to study the effects of pollution on athletic performance. He concluded that it could be "huge."

Because athletes' lungs work more efficiently than most people's, he said at a presentation in October, "one of these high-powered athletes going out and exercising not even at their maximum, but going out and exercising for 30 minutes, they get a larger effective dose than you or I sitting in a chair in the park in Beijing for eight hours a day."

Athletes, coaches and medical directors for the teams say the potential effects of Beijing's pollution became apparent to them only during the numerous test events, or "dress rehearsals," that China hosted last year.

While some athletes said they were unfazed by the air, others found that it had a profound effect on their performance.

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a Boulder, Colo., bicyclist who competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and is a contender for a spot on this year's U.S. mountain biking team, said that when he arrived in the Chinese capital, the sky was a crystal-clear blue and he thought that concerns about pollution had been overblown. But on the day he was to race, he said, the smog was so thick "you could barely see a few city blocks" from his hotel window.

About 20 minutes into the race, Horgan-Kobelski started having trouble breathing.

"I struggled with it for a while," he said in a phone interview. "You're breathing as hard as you can but you feel like your muscles don't want to work. You're filling your lungs but you don't know what's going in there."

About halfway through the roughly 30-mile race, Horgan-Kobelski said, "my body sort of shut down." He pulled over and vomited.

It wasn't until he got to the athletes' lounge that he learned that he wasn't unique. Only eight of 47 contestants in the men's race finished; the others, including the Chinese riders, also suffered from breathing problems and dropped out.

Now medical teams around the world are trying to figure out what could give their countries' athletes an edge in a polluted atmosphere.

Martin, a professor emeritus of respiratory therapy at Georgia State University's School of Health and Human Sciences and author of "The Olympic Marathon," said the U.S. track and field team has been testing various types of face masks. Wearing the masks would slow down runners, he said, but "if they run without masks and the pollution coats the inside of their lungs, they will have the situation of a coal miner."

British athletes, most of whom will be based in the southern city of Macau before the Olympics, have been given information about "specific diets and antioxidants to battle pollution in Beijing," said Miriam Wilkens, a spokeswoman for the British Olympic Association.

Charles van Commenee, technical director for the Dutch National Olympic Committee, said the Netherlands, which has decided to base most of its athletes in South Korea, said acclimating to the pollution rather than avoiding it might be the answer. Athletes have been told to arrive in Beijing at least five days before their events. "Human bodies can get used to it," he said.

A secondary concern for the Olympic teams is the safety of food in Beijing. Last year's recalls of pesticide-laden fish, carcinogenic candy and other Chinese food products have made some athletes uneasy.

To forestall any problems, the Olympic Village has installed a system to monitor the food and will test for contaminants. But some staff members said they are discouraging athletes from eating at outside restaurants.

Medical advisers have expressed particular concern about Chinese meat, which in the past has been found to contain banned drugs such as anabolic steroids. They fear that an athlete who consumed that meat could fail a drug test and be disqualified.

Cai Tongyi, an Olympic Food Safety Committee member and a professor of food sciences at China Agricultural University, said athletes should not worry. "We will control the problem from the area of animal feed to block its source," he said.

At the other extreme are countries that brush off concerns about China's air and food -- Ethiopia, for example. Ethiopia won seven track and field medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and its Olympic officials said they are not doing anything different to prepare for Beijing.

Dube Jillo, technical director for Ethiopia's Olympic committee, said he has been to Beijing several times for marathons. "I don't know why some other teams are worried," he said. "I think the air in Beijing is very good."

The star of Ethiopia's track team apparently doesn't agree. Haile Gebreselassie, who has won two gold medals in the 10,000 meters and holds the world record in the marathon, may not run in the Olympic marathon. In an interview with the Associated Press, the runner's manager, Jos Hermens, said: "What he says is: 'Great if I win, but if it means the end of my career, then I really don't feel like it.' "

Researchers Wu Meng in Shanghai, Stella Kim in Seoul and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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