Athletes participating in the Beijing Olympics this summer could
face a troubling combination of polluted air and hot, humid weather
conditions if the Chinese government is not able to clear the
skies in time for the games.
is planning to shut down factories and limit automobile use starting
in July in a push to get rid of the city's heavy smog by the opening
ceremonies on Aug. 8.
Concerns over pollution have prompted the U.S. Olympic Committee
to create a preventative plan centered on alternate training sites
that will allow athletes to adjust to the time zone and heat conditions,
without the pollution.
Most of the athletes will live and train in South Korea, Japan
or Singapore in the days before the games to avoid the poor air
quality, U.S. Olympic Committee senior sport physiologist Randall
Wilber said in an e-mail.
"It is disadvantageous to attempt to acclimatize to air
pollution," Wilber said, though some of the indoor sport
participants will train in Beijing on a limited basis.
Wilber also has recommended athletes wear specially designed
face masks when they are outside in Beijing. The British Olympic
Association abandoned a similar plan in April, after finding that
face masks were not effectively preventing pollutants from entering
The air quality issue has coaches and athletes, like U.S. cyclist
Kristin Armstrong, on the alert.
She traveled to Beijing in December to check out the courses
and assess the pollution problem.
"We wanted to make sure if I did have any real problems
we took action," Armstrong said. She was content with her
performance, but the pollution problem was evident.
"There were days that were really bad. I'd look out my hotel
window and couldn't see the next building."
The USOC's Wilber visited Beijing in early April and reported
no improvement in the air quality yet, but said he is confident
the government will be able to reduce the level of air pollution
to prevent problems for the athletes.
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques
Rogge, down-played the pollution issue at an April 5 press appearance,
but acknowledged the air quality could reduce athlete performance.
Days earlier, Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the IOC coordination
commission, told Reuters some events lasting more than an hour
might be delayed if the pollution levels are high.
The pollutants present in Beijing's air, including carbon monoxide,
ozone and particulate matter from smokestacks and construction
sites can be detrimental to pulmonary function and oxygen transport.
If the pollution does not improve, athletes with asthma could
be susceptible to serious health risks, Wilber said.
Already, Ethiopian world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, who
has asthma, decided not to compete in the marathon because of
the health risk. But for many athletes, the air quality is just
another condition they will have to deal with at the games.
"I don't know what to expect, but this has been a life long
goal so I'm not going to turn it down because of the air quality,"
U.S. marathoner Brian Sell said.
"It could be in Death Valley or the middle of the desert
and I'm still going to run. It's the Olympics."
Pollution could have the greatest effect in outdoor events that
involve being active for over 60 minutes, such as the marathon,
triathlon, cycling and tennis.
Men's Olympic tennis coach Rodney Harmon said he will be sending
his team members to a respiratory doctor and allergist. He said
he also wants to get the athletes out on the court prior to their
events to make sure their bodies are recovering correctly and
their heart rates come down in a reasonable amount of time.
"The heat puts a lot of stress on your respiratory system,
so if there is an issue with the air quality it makes it that
much harder for your body to recover," Harmon said. "If
we have any athletes that have asthma it's going to be a huge
Armstrong will be competing in the 66-mile cycling road race
in her second Olympics. She has been training in Lucerne, Switzerland,
to compete with top cyclists.
Unlike the 2004 Athens games, when she attended the opening ceremonies
and enjoyed the entire Olympic experience, Armstrong plans to
arrive in Beijing just five days before her event to give her
body time to adjust, but not too much time breathing the air.
"The more time you're there, the more time it has to get
into your lungs and get into your chest," she said. "If
you expose your lungs by working out prior to your event it can
open up the risks to it affecting your event."
Marathoner Sell, who is training in Rochester Hills, Mich., said
he is more concerned about the heat than the air quality and that
as the Olympics get closer he will move his training to Florida
to run in heat and humidity.
"As far as the pollution goes, there isn't a whole lot you
can do besides run behind a Hummer," Sell joked.
Bryan Volpenhein has competed in two Olympics as a rower and
will look to repeat this year. He said he is "a little concerned"
about the air and plans to follow any recommendations, whether
it is wearing a mask in Beijing or training in similar conditions
on U.S. soil.
"There is always a buzz that goes around before the Olympics
or the World Championships about how the conditions will be,"
"In Athens it was the wind. People were worried we wouldn't
be able to race."
Volpenhein, unlike Armstrong, said he would rather acclimate
to the conditions than arrive right before his event.
"I think its better to just get into the environment --
your body will adjust. I think what is dangerous is not dealing
with the initial shock that any environment is going to cause."
Volpenhein said he doesn't think it will give anyone an unfair
"The way I see it is that it's something you can't really
change," Volpenhein said. "Everybody racing is going
to be in the same environment."
For coach Harmon, part of the struggle will be to balance the
athlete's desires to go out and live the Olympic experience, with
what is best for performance and health.
Staying inside, and out of the polluted air, as much as possible
will become a priority once events start, even if it's not what
the athletes had in mind.
"I would hate for us to lose a match because one of our
players couldn't play at their best because of respiratory issues,"