Colby Pearce, Olympic track cycling hopeful from Boulder, Colorado, saw smog floating inside the velodrome in Beijing. "When you are coughing up black mucus, you have to stop for a second and say: 'O.K., I get it. This is a really, really bad problem we're looking at.' " The U.S. boxing team, while competing in China ran in the hotel hallways instead of on the streets because the air was "disgusting."
George Thurston, Professor of Environmental Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, said the body's reaction to pollution exposure is immediate. "Your body says, 'This air is bad; breathe less of it,' and that's a defensive mechanism. For athletes, that means they will go into oxygen debt sooner and will start cramping up. At the Olympics, that could be disastrous."
Pollution can provoke allergic reactions or set off asthma attacks. The risk of a heart attack rises on high-pollution days. He worries most about ozone and particulate matter, two of five pollutants that affect an athlete's performance. (Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are the others.) Vehicle emissions, coal-fueled factories and construction sites in and around Beijing generate the high level of air pollution. "Ozone directly affects the lungs, and at high enough levels, it would cause fluid to come into the lungs," Thurston said. "Particulate matter is actually breathed in, and the particles deposit on the lungs and can actually pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream. Both can cause acute reactions in people exposed to them."
The issue is deadly to marathoners, triathletes and cyclists. Rogge has threatened to reschedule endurance events if the pollution level on competition days poses a danger to athletes. An athlete working out at a moderate pace for 30 minutes in poor air is subject to the same exposure as a sedentary person breathing that air for eight hours, Wilber said.
"It's pretty rare to have a full-blown asthma attack because of pollution, but it will affect an athlete's performance, and our testing shows that. You're not going to drop dead, but your oxygen transport is definitely being compromised. It could mean the difference between a gold medal and finishing in the back of the pack."
"We've got to take a lot of precautions to keep our athletes away from the Olympic hoopla and out of the pollution before their event," said Chris Hipgrave, the Olympic high performance director at USA Canoe/Kayak, adding that the team would use high-efficiency particulate air filters in room air-conditioners at the Games. Tim Hornsby, an Olympic hopeful in sprint kayak who has exercise-induced asthma, said having an inhaler would be crucial for those with breathing problems. Pollution is a major asthma trigger. "It's frightening to feel like you can't breathe," he said.
Wilber's U.S. Olympic Committee lab co-designed a mask using activated carbon filtration system; 750 to 1,000 masks, costing $20-$25 each, will be part of the Olympic gear. The masks filter 85 percent to 100 percent of the main pollutants, Wilber said, compared with paper masks, which only filter 25 percent to 45 percent (but not the carbon monoxide, we hasten to add).
Sandrine Tonge, spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee, said the international federation for each sport makes the rules on what athletes cannot wear in competition. Thus, it is conceivable that some athletes will wear masks during their Olympic events, but Wilber said no Americans would do so. "I think it would be a huge political issue and an embarrassment to the Chinese people and to the IOC if American athletes wore masks in the event itself," Wilber said. "If that image was beamed around the world on TV, it would cause nothing but problems," but once again, we ask: so what?)
"It's much more important to guard against the pollution beforehand and go to the line with clean lungs," he said. U.S. triathletes wore masks in China last September, but removed them before competing. They stepped off the bus looking like, as one triathlete put it, a gathering of Darth Vaders. No other teams were wearing masks. Some opponents snickered. "You do look kind of silly wearing it," said one triathlete, Jarrod Shoemaker, 25, who had competed in Beijing before, "but I wore it before the race this time, and I didn't feel burning in my throat afterward. I could still taste the grit on my teeth, but I could actually talk and breathe. That wasn't the case in other years."
So this describes what Olympic Athletes will be breathing in Beijing. What will they be eating? More ethylene glycol? More poisoned eels and farm- raised fish mixed in with their Kung Pao Chicken or those General Tso's casseroles?
The smartest and/or best financed nations will be bringing their own food and their own caterers with them, for this reason, but nothing will prevent the injuries and probably several deaths in Olympic athletes from Beijing's unspeakable air pollution.
One final point for those with deeper minds to ponder: the karmic, spiritual, and humanitarian pollution in China is something that very few even care to question.
Stephen Fox, Managing Editor Santa Fe Sun News
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