IOC: Beijing Air Quality Could Put Athletes at Risk
BEIJING, China, March 18, 2008 (ENS) - World record marathoner Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia has announced that he will not participate in the marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Gebrselassie, who suffers from exercise-related asthma, has expressed fears that the air pollution in the Chinese capital will threaten his health.

A new assessment of Beijing air quality released Monday by the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission acknowledges for the first time that athletes such as Gebrselassie might have something to worry about.

The commission says some athletes may be at risk if they compete in outdoor endurance events in Beijing where the Games are set to begin on August 8.

Beijing Olympic Stadium on a smoggy day (Photo by An Drew)

For outdoor endurance events that include minimum one hour continuous physical efforts at high level - urban road cycling, mountain bike, marathon, marathon swimming, triathlon and road walk - the IOC Medical Commissionís findings indicated that "there may be some risk."

Medical Commission Chairman Arne Ljungqvist said, "As with all Olympic Games, we want to ensure that air quality risks are mitigated and that measures are put into place to protect the health of the athletes. The health and safety of the competing athletes is of the utmost importance.

Ljungqvist said the IOC will be working together with the relevant international federations in order to put in place procedures which will allow a "plan B" to be activated for such events if necessary.

"The procedure will include daily monitoring of air quality and weather conditions at the venue, a reporting process from the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau to the IOC and relevant sports federation, and a joint IOC-sports federation decision to postpone the event if necessary," he said.

He said that air quality could reduce the potential for world records and peak performances in all sports

"It may be that some events will not be conducted under optimal conditions - which is the reality of sports competitions - and that we may not see records broken in Beijing. However, the Games are more about competing in the Olympic spirit, than about breaking records," said Ljungqvist.

Over the past weeks, the IOC Medical Commission has analyzed a set of data, including temperature, wind, humidity and concentrations of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ground-level ozone and particulate matter, PM10 readings.

The data was gathered by the Beijing Environment Protection Bureau from August 8 to 29, 2007 and given to the International Olympic Committee, IOC. The data have been evaluated on the basis of the World Health Organization's 2005 interim target standards.

Students participate in an Olympics fun run in Beijing March 9, 2008. (Photo courtesy Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee)

The findings indicate that, at Games time one year ago, "the health of athletes was largely not impaired," the Medical Commission said.

No health issues related to air quality were reported to the IOC by any of the team physicians who looked after athletes competing during the August 2007 test events. Nor were any such problems reported at the IAAF Junior World Championships that were held in August 2006.

Moreover, said the Commission, measures are continuously being taken by the Chinese authorities which can be expected to improve the air quality further when compared with 2006 and 2007.

But a study released last April by an international team of scientists says that controlling only local sources of air pollution in Beijing will not be sufficient to attain the air quality goal set for the Beijing Olympics.

Air quality in Beijing in the summer is dictated by meteorology and topography. Typically, the scientists explain in their report, temperatures are high, humidity is high, wind speeds are low, and the surrounding hills restrict venting of pollution. Regional pollutants like particulate matter and ozone build up over several days, usually until dispersed by wind or removed by rain.

"Our modeling suggests that emission sources far from Beijing exert a significant influence on Beijingís air quality," the report concludes, adding, "There is an urgent need for regional air quality management studies and new emission control strategies to ensure that the air quality goals for 2008 are met."

To read the report, "Air quality during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games," click here.

For ENS past coverage of Beijing air pollution during the 2008 Olympics see: Regional Pollution Could Overwhelm Beijing's Clean Air Efforts

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