Concerns, Questions Hang in The Air

Olympic personnel enter the National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, on a hazy morning today.
Olympic personnel enter the National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, on a hazy morning today. (By Nelson Ching -- Bloomberg News)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 8 -- Chinese organizers hope to unveil one of the most spectacular Olympic parks in history during Friday night's Opening Ceremonies, with its red-glowing National Stadium, shimmering swimming venue, rainbow-lit pavements and blushing light poles. But athletes, organizers and denizens of Beijing awoke hours before to a haze so thick venues could not be seen from less than a half mile away.

The ominous start to the day revived the nervous questions that have percolated in recent days. Will the gauzy fog that has made frequent appearances this week hang over the cluster of venues through the evening's big event, dimming their electric radiance and highlighting the city's pollution problem? Will a cloudburst unleash a drenching organizers have tried to stave off with sophisticated weather modification technology? Will the near 100 percent humidity that has marked recent days leave President Bush and the host of world leaders in attendance perspiring through their suits?

Of all of the non-sport issues that have tailed organizers in the run-up to the Summer Games, perhaps the most perplexing is the one even the Chinese government has little hope of controlling: atmospheric conditions.

From the moment the 205 participating nations march in to the National Stadium -- their order determined by the number of Chinese strokes in the first syllable of each committee's title in Mandarin, rather than the alphabet -- the unpredictability of weather and air quality will bring a daily shot of uncertainty to these Olympics.

"We've come here expecting the worst, and hopefully we don't see that," said Drew Ginn, a rower from Australia. "I think all the athletes came in here almost fearful of it and we've been happily surprised over the first few days."

The Opening Ceremonies were slated to begin at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8, 2008, with the hope that tapping into the luckiest number in China would ensure good weather. Of course, additional measures were taken. The Chinese have teams of scientists in the weather modification office using advanced techniques to plant chemicals in the clouds in the hope of controlling rainfall.

Meteorologists and organizers, however, have openly fretted about whether it will work, noting this week that the technology is merely experimental. "To our delight, latest weather forecasts predict no heavy rains on Friday," Zhang Heping, the director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, said Wednesday according to the Xinhua news agency, showing his relief. "Thank God bless us."

A panel of weather experts predicted earlier this week that August would be hotter and rainier than usual, a bit disconcerting given that midday norms for this month are about 85 degrees with 90 percent humidity.

Hot and sticky days have afflicted many Summer Olympics and pollution in host cities has occasionally been an issue. Rarely, though, have fears about extreme heat, humidity and air quality intersected with such intensity.

The Olympics in Seoul, Atlanta and Barcelona were fiercely hot. Concerns about pollution plagued Athens in 2004 and Los Angeles in 1984. In Athens, however, the extreme heat was muted by drier conditions. The weather at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney always seemed pleasant; the International Olympic Committee permitted a late September start for those Games to get far enough away from the chill of Australia's winter.

Steve Roush, the chief of sport performance for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said heat and humidity likely will present greater problems to athletes than pollution. Roush, who oversaw the preparation of a comprehensive weather manual for the U.S. delegation, said USOC officials have preached to their athletes about the importance of drinking plenty of water. They also have offered their Olympians access to high-tech "cooling vests," designed to be worn before competition, to help slow the body's tendency to overheat in events that require prolonged heat exposure.

"The other day we climbed the Great Wall," U.S. fencer Erinn Smart said. "I told somebody, 'I'm sweating more here than I would sweat in practice.' You take five steps and suddenly you're sweating. It's really hot here."

Some, including IOC President Jacques Rogge, maintain that humidity can be partly responsible for the thick haze that occasionally descends on Beijing. On Thursday, when visibility was severely impaired, China's Ministry of Environmental Protection reported the air pollution index as 95, up from the 35 level recorded earlier in the week, but still considered moderate. Many experts dispute those readings, noting that China does not measure two of the most dangerous pollutants.

The IOC has vowed to move events on days when the pollution index reaches unsafe levels. Organizers will monitor the air quality at 24 stations around Beijing, then tangle with how to respond to atmospheric extremes. They will attempt to balance concerns about athletes' safety with the realization that postponements or cancellations could embarrass the Chinese hosts.

Despite several days this week when not a ray of sunshine pierced the thick fog over the city, officials and athletes with previous experience in Beijing say the air quality has improved, providing some hope that the competition will go on as planned.

"The numbers indicate a favorable trend," said Roush, who has traveled to China more than 20 times since 2001. "We continue our cautiously optimistic approach to the next couple of days. [The smog] is a concern not only for ourselves but also for [the Beijing organizers] as well as the IOC."

Indeed, the cloudy skies are a major concern. Experts might debate whether skies that appear polluted really are, but this is for sure: A Summer Games cloaked in haze won't look good, for the spectators on hand here or the millions watching on television around the world.

"The fog does not necessarily mean pollution," Rogge said Thursday. "Of course, we prefer clear skies."

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