Beijing Air Quality to Challenge Olympic Athletes

Athletes competing in the Olympic Games this summer in Beijing have to overcome the city's poor air quality. Marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia has pulled out of the event. To find out what ways athletes may be affected by China s environmental conditions, Steve Inskeep talks to Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many people wonder how China's pollution will affect athletes at the Beijing Olympics. And the world record holder in the marathon has decided he does not want to find out. Haile Gebrselassie will show up for a shorter race, but as an asthmatic, he says he will not risk running the marathon. And so this morning, we've called Christine Brennan of USA Today, who's covered several Olympics. Christine, good morning.

Ms. CHRISTINE BRENNAN (Reporter, USA Today): Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How significant is this decision?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, it's terrible public relations for Beijing, and it couldn't come at a worse time, with Chinese Olympic officials already in the midst of human rights issues, of course, Darfur, dissidents being jailed. So just another one of these stories that are going to keep popping up for the next five months until the opening ceremonies. The issue with Gebrselassie, I think, it's doubtful the floodgates will open with other athletes bailing out of the Olympics, Steve, just because the Olympics are so important to these athletes. They train their whole lives for this moment. So I don't that that's going to be a trend, but I think, once again, it highlights the awful air quality in Beijing, which is - I think - going to be the biggest story of the games going into the Olympics, of course, in five months.

INSKEEP: Do you know how Gebrselassie made this decision? Did he, for example, go to Beijing and take a few sniffs of the air and run some laps?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, if he had, I've done that. And I can tell you, it's not a pleasant thought. He has asthma. He's had trouble in the past with asthma, and a lot of athletes, Steve, are discussing this exact issue. What about if I have asthma? How am I going to be able to handle that? Inhalers are allowed, but under certain circumstances in Olympic drug-testing rules. So you've got to be careful about that. And then you throw in the fact that it's August. So the heat and humidity, the pollution all combined as one. But the air quality is so bad for those who have been there - I was there last September. And literally, when you go through customs at the airport and start walking to catch a cab, you start to feel it in your throat. The scratchiness starts coming up in your throat. The next morning, Steve, in my hotel room, I threw open the draperies, and it was so grey and dark looking out at the Beijing sky, I thought it was raining. Then I looked on the ground, there was no moisture. It was just pollution. So anyone who's been there - and I don't know if he's been there or not. But if you've been there, you can realize almost immediately how bad the air is.

INSKEEP: Are people not believing Chinese authorities who say, look, we're going to shut down coal-fired plants and factories and so forth at the time of the Olympics?

Ms. BRENNAN: No, actually, they are believing them. And, in fact, the US Olympic Committee and all other Olympic committees, Steve, are desperately hoping for that. And one of the - the good news in this story, really, is that Being, because they're so ready - the Olympic organizers are so prepared, unlike, say, Athens four years ago - that they can focus almost entirely now on the issue of air quality over the next five - as I said - five months before the August 8th games begin. I do think, though, that the reality is that it's so bad and the humidity is so bad, that where in L.A., going into the L.A. games in '84 or the Athens games in 2004, there was that sense that there's going to be bad pollution. The wind blew the right way, the air was clear, it turned out great. So there's the hope that this will happen again, that they will have a good, you know, air quality. But the reality is, I think, it's probably going to be - I just think it's going to be the story of the games.

INSKEEP: I guess even if you shut down some factories, you've still got massive traffic, don't you?

Ms. BRENNAN: Well, and get this. There are 1,000 new cars hitting the roads in Beijing every day. So we've never seen a city like this host the Olympics, where so much is occurring, where technology and change is happening so quickly. And I think that that's where this is going to be a challenge unlike Los Angeles, unlike Athens, in terms of trying to control not only the emissions, but also, of course, the cars and just the people who are trying to drive those cars, as I said, by a thousand a day.

INSKEEP: Christine, thanks very much.

Ms. BRENNAN: Okay, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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