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China's Olympic Pollution Efforts Paid Off, Expert Says

Rick Lovett
for National Geographic News
August 15, 2008
 
Beijing's air for the opening track-and-field events at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games is "better than expected," said U.S. Olympic distance runner Amy Yoder Begley.

"When I came to China to race in 2002," Yoder Begly said in an e-mail earlier this week, "the air caused my lungs and nasal passages to burn." She also described the sensation as "swallowing glass."

Although air pollution in China's capital city (see a related story) is almost always worse than anywhere in the United States, Chinese efforts to clean up the air before the Games have paid off.

The country shut down all nearby factories and ordered half the cars off the road, creating tangible improvements, scientists say.

"I'm measuring about a 20 to 40 percent reduction in particulate matter compared to a year ago," said Staci Simonich, an environmental chemist from Oregon State University whose lab group has made three trips to Beijing to study the city's air.

Ups and Downs

Day-to-day pollution levels have tended to fluctuate. When it rains, pollution drops, then builds back up—unless there's a strong north wind to blow it away, Simonich said.

"We've seen some real ups and downs," Simonich said from her temporary lab at Peking University in Beijing.

On a good day, the air quality is still below levels American athletes are accustomed to.

U.S. runner Yoder Begley's 10,000-meter teammate Kara Goucher grew up in the clean air of northern Minnesota, and had never been to Beijing before this summer.

"[T]he pollution and smog in Beijing is much, much worse than I imagined," she wrote earlier in the week—before the latest rain—on a blog for the Duluth News Tribune.

"Its a bit eerie how the sun never comes out all day. If you are walking around the village and you look ahead, you can't see all of the buildings. The pollution creates a fog that clouds over everything. It is unimaginable. I am shocked by how bad it is."

Simonich's measurements confirm that the air, although better, is still heavily polluted by U.S. standards.

On average, she said, she's been measuring particulate levels about six times higher than those seen in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

A good day in Beijing, she said, is roughly comparable to America's most polluted cities.

The Chinese were hoping for more than the improvements seen in Simonich's tests, but their efforts have been undercut by the smog-trapping climate.

"I think they've done as much as they can," Simonich said. "But … the role that meteorology plays is so important."

Extreme Heat

The same weather that traps smog can make Beijing extremely hot and humid.

Goucher and Yoder Begley prepared for their competitions by training for a week in Houston, along with fellow distance runner Galen Rupp.

"The workouts went great," the group's coach, Alberto Salazar, told the Portland Oregonian newspaper. "We ran in hotter conditions than we expect to see in Beijing."

But that doesn't mean the heat won't be a major factor for less-prepared competitors.

"The air is so thick," Yoder Begley wrote on her blog. "You sweat through your clothes in minutes and stay wet all day."

The weather took a toll last weekend in the men's bicycling road race, a hilly 152-mile (245-kilometer) event in which 53 of 143 competitors dropped out.

"I worked hard, but the heat and humidity were too much for me," Dutch cyclist Karsten Kroon told the Salt Lake Tribune. "You feel your head explode."

Mari Holden, a 2000 silver-medalist-turned-coach, sympathized.

"I always had a hard time with heat and humidity," she told National Geographic News. "I've had instances where I ended up in the hospital."

Whatever the conditions, however, athletes say they are still driven to do their best.

As distance runner Shalane Flanagan told the Associated Press: "Unless I can't walk and my lungs are falling out, or I'm coughing up a lung, I'll be running."
 

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