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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 7/6/08

Beijing Air Pollution Will Kill Several Olympic Athletes; US Trainer Takes Precautions; Olympians Wearing Masks?

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"China is dangerously near a crisis point" with its environment. A third of China's people drink substandard water and a third breathe badly polluted air, according to Pan. "True, China has made the kind of economic advances in three decades that required 100 years in Western countries. But China has also suffered a century's worth of environmental damage in 30 years."

Eric Orts, also a professor at Wharton, says that pollution will likely drag down China's economic growth and result in huge health-care costs; China's pollution will erode its competitive position in the global economy. "If you want to be an international player, you have to be a place where executives can come and live and not worry about their kids getting lung cancer."

One obstacle is a weak legal system: without economic damages from civil lawsuits, pollution controls go nowhere, as there is no outside legal mechanism to punish polluters. "Mao basically killed or reeducated most of the lawyers and judges. There was a whole generation wiped out by the Cultural Revolution." Enforcing environmental laws works against local government's economic interests. "The system is corrupt and there are no lawyers who can bring a basic lawsuit," Orts notes. Further, China never developed anything like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, forces for cleaner
environmental movements around the world. The central government cracks down on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, "because it's not part of their view of how society develops." The Chinese government is boosting its investments in the legal system, says Orts. The clean-up effort related to the 2008 Beijing Olympics shows "at least they understand this as a major issue."

Professor Zhang agrees that China has a pollution problem, but he is more forgiving of the situation. The nation is climbing out of deep poverty, and environmental damage is one price it has had to pay for prosperity, Zhang notes. "The tolerance level is higher." Stay a few days in Beijing and breathe the air and "you don't feel that terribly bad. When you are hungry, you worry about food, no matter how dirty you are. Chinese offer the analogy that "the nation is a construction site and everything is not tidy." Zhang says the Chinese will present a modern city focused on environmental practices, a monumental sales pitch to other Chinese cities and the world, showing what great strides the country is making.

The central government likes to establish models and then have those models replicated around the country, Zhang says. "So in that sense, you are building up a model city [for the 2008 Olympics]. You are building a showroom." But in this author's opinion, Beijing in reality will be no more than a short-term Environmental Potemkin Village, one in which at least several athletes are likely to collapse and die on the tracks or on the field....

Even the normally acquiescent United Nations, through its Environment Programme, is very concerned. A recent UNEP report has ghastly findings about the concentration of particulate matter, which comes from construction sites, coal-burning boilers and dust storms. This pollutant is at about the same concentration level as it was in 2000, and at certain periods is three times above the WHO safe limit.

UNEP spokesman Eric Falt said Olympic organizers, athletes, spectators and Beijing residents had every right to be worried. "We have said it has been a concern for a long time, but I do not want to go beyond what has been said," he told BBC. Falt said only long-term planning and proper enforcement could solve the problem.

The UNEP report contradicts comments made by Beijing officials.

Du Shaozhong, Beijing's head of environmental protection, said in August 2007: "I am sure we will be able to ensure good air quality during Olympic Games." (How reasssuring!)

I am not the only person worried about all of this....the U.S. Olympic Committee's lead exercise physiologist, Randy Wilber described questions from athletes in a discussion with Juliet Macur of the International Herald Tribune: "Should I run behind a bus and breathe in the exhaust? Should I train on the highway during rush hour? Is there any way to acclimate to pollution?"

"We have to be extremely careful and steer them in the right direction because the mind-set of the elite athlete is to do anything it takes to get that advantage," Wilbur recently said. "If they thought locking themselves in the garage with the car running would help them win a gold medal, I'm sure they would do it. Our job, obviously, is to prevent that." Wilber has spent the past two years devising safe ways for athletes to face the noxious air in Beijing. Wilber has traveled to Beijing three times to measure the pollution at each Olympic site, and said no one of them is relying on Chinese officials' statistics!

International Olympic Committee's president, Jacques Rogge, said he was confident the air would be clean because Chinese officials "are not going to let down the world." (This is delusional pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, in reality).

Rogge recalled that pollution was a concern before the Summer Games in 1984 in Los Angeles and in 2004 in Athens but that the air quality was not a problem when competition began.

Personally, I can't forget in 1984 visiting Occidental College, my alma mater (also one of Barack Obama's alma maters, which he left for Columbia and later Harvard Law School, out of frustration with the Occidental Administration regarding his efforts to get them to reinvest out of South African apartheid industries, like gold mines; within a few years, this became fashionable among elite colleges and they all did it!). Anyway, I decided in a moment of post collegiate bravado to run one mile on the track that had been refurbished by a gift from New Mexico's Robert Orville Anderson. What a mistake! The carbon monoxide and god knows what else caused me to partially black out, then vomit at the end of the mile for a least ten minutes, symptoms of classic carbon monoxide poisoning!

Wilber's research shows certain pollutants as "significantly higher" than they were at Athens or Los Angeles, so he scouted for alternate training sites in South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia for use in the days before the Beijing Games. The triathlon team is training in South Korea, and the canoe and kayak athletes went to Japan. Wilber encourages athletes to arrive in Beijing at the last moment, and has tested athletes to see if they qualify for an exemption to use an asthma inhaler. He urges all to wear masks over their noses and mouths from the minute they step foot in Beijing until they begin competing! This strategy could give the U.S. team an edge over less prepared teams, but its downside is to run the risk of offending the host country, creating political tension at an event that is supposed to foster good will among nations. I say, "So what? Why worry about offending the Chinese? Not just our athletes' performance is at stake, but their health as well!"

Pollution levels on a typical day in Beijing are five times above World Health Organization standards for safety. Marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie has allergies, and No. 1 women's tennis player Justine Henin has asthma; both have reservations about competing in Beijing fearing that pollution will worsen their breathing problems. Some complained that Beijing's foul air in earlier trials caused respiratory infections and nausea.

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