By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
The International Olympic Committee acknowledged for the first time yesterday that air pollution could affect the health and performance of athletes at this summer's Olympics in Beijing and said it would monitor air quality daily during the Games to determine whether to postpone certain outdoor events.
Air-quality problems could decrease the potential for world records and peak performances in all sports while creating a possible health risk in outdoor endurance events such as the marathon, triathlon and road cycling, the committee's highest-ranking medical official said.
The IOC's unexpectedly frank announcement that drastic measures might have to be taken, coupled with last week's snub of the Olympic men's marathon by one of the world's top distance runners, seemed to signal that some athletes and officials have lost faith that the Chinese will adequately address Beijing's air-quality problem in time for the Aug. 8-24 Games.
Though air-quality concerns have dogged organizers of previous Olympics, including in Los Angeles in 1984 and Athens in 2004, pollution has never caused the cancellation or postponement of an event or led to such an extensive study of air quality in advance of competition as the one undertaken by the IOC.
The IOC medical commission used data collected in Beijing last Aug. 8 to Aug. 29.
"The findings indicate that there may be some risk" for outdoor endurance events, Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the IOC's medical commission, said from Sweden during a conference call with reporters. "The IOC will therefore . . . put in place procedures which will allow a 'B-Plan' to be activated for such events if necessary."
Added Ljungqvist: "The risk [for most athletes] is more related to the fact they may not perform at the best level. . . . We may not see much of world records under unfavorable conditions, but that's not the main purpose of the Olympic Games."
Since Beijing won the right to hold the Olympics in 2001, Chinese officials have spent nearly $17 billion to clean the air, but the city remains under a gray cloud on many days and athletes frequently complain about competing in choking conditions.
U.S. officials are taking measures to protect American athletes should air conditions be sub-standard, but are not discouraging them from competing, U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Communications Officer Darryl Seibel said. As a precaution, all U.S. Olympic athletes will have access to surgical-type masks for non-competition use designed to filter out pollutants, and national governing bodies have been encouraged to provide pre-Olympic training opportunities close to, but outside of, Beijing.
USOC scientists, meantime, have been flying frequently to Beijing to administer breathing tests to American athletes competing there to determine whether they need to apply to the IOC to use inhalers or other breathing medication.
"We are very confident . . . that air pollution will not be an issue," said Randy Wilber, a USOC senior sport physiologist during a phone interview from China, where he gave pulmonary function tests to members of the water polo team last week. "However, as we have done for every Olympic Games whether there is air pollution or not, we will have backup plans and contingencies in place in case of any problems."
Said Seibel: "Every Games has a myriad of last-minute type issues that have to be dealt with. The one issue China has to deal with is air quality. Not to minimize it, but they've got five months. They are basically ready in every other respect."
Officials say that athletes' fears for their health -- or even merely of miserable conditions for competition -- could create a new dilemma for Beijing organizers: a rash of withdrawals from outdoor endurance events. Athletes that follow the lead of Ethiopia's Haile Gebrselassie, who last week announced his decision to skip the marathon because of air-quality concerns, would prove extremely embarrassing to the Chinese government.
"I was in the city in August and I know what the extreme conditions of pollution, heat and humidity are," Gebrselassie told the Spanish news agency EFE yesterday, according to the Associated Press. "It's going to be the hardest marathon in history. . . . I'd love to go for it, but health is my first priority."
During the Olympics, IOC medical commission members and affected international sports federations will jointly decide each morning whether it was safe to proceed with scheduled endurance events, including the marathon, triathlon, race walking, urban road cycling, mountain biking and marathon swimming, Ljungqvist said.
The IOC will rely on its own daily monitoring of air quality and weather conditions, as well as reports from the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau, which supplied information to the IOC, through Beijing Olympic organizers, for its recent analysis.
The possibility of postponements of certain Olympic events was first raised by IOC President Jacques Rogge last year, but no specifics were offered. Olympic events have been postponed in the past for weather reasons, such as when a blizzard hits the ski slopes the morning of a competition.
The IOC medical commission reached its conclusions after four independent, international air-quality experts with no connection to sport analyzed environmental data collected in Beijing last August that included readings of five pollutants, Ljungqvist said. The data were evaluated on the basis of the World Health Organization's 2005 interim target standards, he said.
The results, Ljungqvist said, actually were better than he had expected. The IOC noted that no health issues related to air quality were reported by any of the team physicians at various test events last August or the 2006 IAAF Junior World Championships in Beijing. The vast majority of athletes in Beijing, he said, should have no health problems.
Ljungqvist also said Olympic officials expect conditions to be improved this August from the previous two years, noting the Chinese government has promised to close factories, keep cars off the road and take other measures to clean the skies.
"There is an awareness in Beijing . . . that pollution is an issue for the Olympic Games and they are taking it very seriously," Ljungqvist said.