A Clouded Issue

Despite evidence to the contrary, China's environmental ministry released a statement Monday headlined,
Despite evidence to the contrary, China's environmental ministry released a statement Monday headlined, "Blue Sky over Beijing with Olympics 5 Days Away." (Bernardo De Niz -- Bloomberg News)
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 4 -- When Olympic athletes threw open the curtains of their Olympic Village dormitory rooms Monday, they were surprised to find that the blue skies that had brightened the city during the weekend had turned milky white. A thick haze obscured nearby buildings and blotted out distant ones.

"We were like, 'Wow,' " Australian beach volleyball player Andrew Schacht said. " 'Is it cloudy or smoggy?' "

American swimmer Ryan Lochte said he braced himself as his flight from the U.S. swim team's training site in Singapore neared Beijing. "I was kind of preparing myself," he said by cellphone after landing. "When I did see it, I knew it was going to be that bad."

China's Ministry of Environmental Protection declared Monday to be an excellent air-quality day, with an air pollution index of 35 -- anything under 50 is considered good -- well below the plus-100 readings reported in late July, when the authorities instituted driving restrictions in the city. Despite the absence of any hint of blue above the horizon, the environmental ministry released a statement headlined, "Blue Sky over Beijing with Olympics 5 Days Away."

Experts have questioned the reliability of the air pollution index, noting that China does not include two of the most dangerous pollutants, ozone and small particulate matter, known as PM2.5, in the readings. A Chinese news agency reported Monday that China will begin monitoring those pollutants after the Olympics.

Whether the readings accurately reflected the conditions, fears about air quality were near the top of international sport officials' concerns five days before the Opening Ceremonies, with many athletes in outdoor events choosing to train outside Beijing until the last possible moment before their competition.

Athletes already in Beijing who had reveled in blue skies for much of the previous week seemed taken aback by the change in conditions on Monday. "Today there was just this haze around," U.S. fencer Erin Smart said.

Reid Priddy, a volleyball Olympian from Richmond, wondered as he stared at the rafters inside a gymnasium at Beijing Normal University, the U.S. Olympic team headquarters, whether the light film that seemed to drape the arena could have been merely an effect of the light. "It's a little strange-looking," he said. "For sports like triathlon, it might play a little bit more of a role . . . but you will just have to deal with whatever is there."

The fog that hovered in the air put a drab curtain over a city otherwise colorfully bedecked for the first Olympics in China. The haze also raised again the question of whether the International Olympic Committee would be forced to postpone outdoor endurance events because of poor air quality -- a move that would be enormously embarrassing for the Chinese government.

Athletes and officials described the conditions as an improvement over what they had experienced during previous visits to Beijing, offering some reassurance that China's attempts to cut pollution by shutting down factories, stopping construction projects and limiting the number of cars on the road had made headway. On Thursday, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced that officials would close 220 more factories, coal-fired power plants and steel plants in Beijing, as well as in nearby Tianjin city and surrounding Hebei province if air quality is forecast to be poor for any 48-hour period.

"It's a little smoggy here, but I'm not coughing up a lung or anything like that," Lochte said. "It might look bad on TV, but as far as the athletes are concerned, no one is dying. The air quality is fine. We're still going to swim well."

Australian beach volleyball player Natalie Cook said she was more concerned about the heat and humidity and hoped she and her teammates would get used to the smog after the day's practice. "We literally have to suck it up and get on with it," she said.

Virtually all of the U.S. Olympic teams that compete outdoors weren't in town to assess the conditions, creating an eerily quiet atmosphere at the training complex set up by the U.S. Olympic Committee for U.S. Olympians before and during the Games.

Randy Wilber, the USOC's senior psychologist, had urged the various sport national governing bodies to set up pre-Olympic training sites in the same time zone as Beijing but that were less likely to be beset by air quality problems. The USOC also conducted breathing tests on U.S. Olympians during stays in Beijing before the Games to ensure those with asthma or other conditions affected by the air quality received proper medication. It offered its national governing bodies specially designed masks for athletes who wished to filter the air while walking around the city.

Only teams for seven sports -- all indoor -- used the facilities at Beijing Normal University on Monday.

American track and field athletes will remain in the seaside town of Dalian, China, until close to the start of their competition Aug. 14. Canoe and kayak athletes are training in Komatsu, Japan. Cyclists and triathletes are in Cheju Island, South Korea. Swimmers spent about 10 days in Singapore, arriving just five days before the start of their Olympic events.

The Australian Olympic team took similar precautions, testing athletes for breathing disorders more extensively than previously and consulting with medical experts about how to prepare its Olympians, Australian Olympic Committee chief John Coates said. "We've taken every precaution possible the last few months but decided it was a matter of getting on with it," Coates said. "It's out of our control."

The pollution has been "nowhere near the levels I've experienced in previous years," said USOC Chief of Sport Performance Steve Roush, who has made more than 20 visits to Beijing since it was awarded the Olympics seven years ago. "I am still remaining somewhat cautiously optimistic that [China] will be able to control it to a level that is satisfactory for the athletes not to be hampered in any competition."

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