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2008 Bejing Olympics

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After nearly seven years and billions upon billions of dollars spent on preparation, China is finally on the cusp of hosting its coming-out party: the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China's president and the country's top athlete launched the Beijing Olympics torch relay on March 31st in Tiananmen Square, amid cheering, dancing and tight security, marking the symbolic start to the Summer Games. It will return to Beijing on August 6th after traveling throughout China, two days before it is used to light the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony. But will they uphold their promise for a “Green Olympics”?

On July 13, 2001, the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Beijing, to an uproar of dissent. Critics said China's record of human rights abuses should have excluded it from consideration. But Olympic officials wanted to give China a chance to change, while the world watched. Beijing beat out Toronto by two votes for the 2008 Games. For the world’s Olympians, Beijing’s air is a performance issue. The concern is that respiratory problems could impede athletic performance and prevent records from being broken. For the city’s estimated 12 million residents, pollution is an inescapable health and quality-of-life issue. Skepticism about the validity of the Blue Sky ratings is common. Moreover, the concern is whether the city can clean itself up long after the Games are over.

Beijing’s biggest problem is PM 10 and other particulates, which are attributed to construction, industry and cars. PM 10 obscures visibility, causes nasal congestion and irritates the throat, trachea and small airways. Average daily levels of PM 10 exceed national and World Health Organization standards. In 2004, the concentration of airborne particulates in Beijing equaled that of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago and Atlanta combined, according to the United States Embassy in Beijing.

Mr. Kolb, the Canadian Olympic official and an environmental physiologist, said Olympic athletes were worried about ozone, which can inflame the respiratory tract and make it more difficult to breathe. But Beijing’s monitoring system does not measure ozone, nor does it measure the finer particulates known as PM 2.5. PM 2.5 obscures visibility and penetrates deeper than larger particulates. It can cause airway irritability, respiratory infections, and damage to lung tissue.

In 2007, a team of Chinese and American scientists analyzed air quality issues for the Olympics and found that Beijing’s daily concentrations of PM 2.5 rated anywhere from 50 percent to 200 percent higher than American standards. Their study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, also found that ozone regularly exceeded levels deemed safe by American standards.

As for the athletes themselves, many are wondering if they should run behind a bus and breath in the exhaust, train on the highway during rush hour, or find a way to acclimate themselves to pollution to increase their chances of winning a medal. Scientists are trying to devise smarter, safer ways for athletes to face Beijing’s noxious air. Mr. Wilber, the lead exercise physiologist for the US Olympic Committee, is encouraging athletes to train elsewhere and arrive in Beijing at the last possible moment. He is also testing possible Olympians to see if they qualify for an International Olympic Committee exemption to use an asthma inhaler. And, in what may be a controversial recommendation, Mr. Wilber is urging all the athletes to wear specially designed masks over their noses and mouths from the minute they step foot in Beijing until they begin competing.

The athletes most affected will be marathoners, triathletes, and cyclists because they are endurance athletes who will compete outdoors for hours. If the pollution

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