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Marathon Puts Beijing Air To The Test

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In Beijing, the first major test of the city's air quality was under way Sunday with the women's marathon.

ROBERT SMITH, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Robert Smith. It might be hard to tell from the news, but Michael Phelps wasn't the only athlete with a remarkable achievement to report this morning. Sure, he's won his eighth gold medal in this Olympics, broken seven world records, and is being called by some "the greatest Olympian of all time," but remember, he's a young man.

Now, consider Romania's Constantina Tomescu, who took gold in the women's marathon. She's a 38-year-old mom who made it look easy. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: It's Sunday morning, and I'm standing in the middle of Tiananmen Square. The marathon is just about to begin. And it looks like a good day for the race, much better than Chinese officials probably could have hoped for. It's overcast. It's probably in the low 70s. There had been a lot of concern about heat and smog for this race, but at the moment, things look relatively good.

People line the edges of the street, waving Chinese flags and banging tubes together. But there aren't that many spectators. Running isn't popular in China and on the streets of Beijing, with pollution and the crowds, it's also impractical.

(Soundbite of starting gun)

LANGFITT: There they go. They bolted out from under an inflatable red arch next to Chairman Mao's mausoleum. It's a hulking building that anchors the square. The runners head east to Wang Fu Ji(ph), one of the city's main shopping streets, then south to the Temple of Heaven Park. They loop back up to the square, past Mao's portrait. Midway through the race, as the runners headed north towards the university district, Tomescu pulled out in front. At a news conference later, she said she didn't expect to shake the pack.

Ms. CONSTANTINA TOMESCU (2008 Olympic Gold Medalist, Women's Marathon): I'm starting after 20K pushing more harder, and I'm looking back. I was surprised because nobody come with me. And I keep pushing, pushing, and the last three kilometer I just starting looking back, and I want to be sure nobody coming after me. And I don't want to lose the gold medal.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

LANGFITT: By the time Tomescu entered the Bird's Nest, she was all alone. She crossed the line at two hours, 26 minutes and 44 seconds. That was more than 11 minutes over the world record, but a lot better than Tomescu's last Olympics, where she finished 20th.

Ms. TOMESCU: In the Athens, it was very hot. The race starts in the afternoon, 5 o'clock. And today, the weather had me a luck.

LANGFITT: Behind Tomescu at the Bird's Nest, Catherine Ndereba of Kenya and China's Zhou Chunxiu battled for silver. After more than 26 miles, the race came down to half a lap. Entering the third turn, Zhou pulled ahead. Ndereba responded and took the lead again around the final turn. Ndereba said she was relieved to hold on to second place.

Ms. CATHERINE NDEREBA (2008 Olympic Silver Medalist, Women's Marathon): And I tried to put all I had to make sure that I maintain it.

LANGFITT: Grimacing, Zhou crossed the finish line just afterwards. The difference between silver and bronze was a second. But speaking later to reporters, Zhou seemed bubbly.

Ms. ZHOU CHUNXIU (2008 Olympic Bronze Medalist, Women's Marathon): (Chinese spoken)

LANGFITT: I'm especially happy, she said. In the lead-up to the games, Beijing's notorious pollution has been a worry. But after today's race, several runners said air quality wasn't a problem. Here's Blake Russell from the United States.

Ms. BLAKE RUSSEL (Women's marathon, Team USA): I wasn't really worried about it. It hasn't affected my training like the whole two weeks I've been here. So I thought - I didn't think it would be a factor.

LANGFITT: Russell was the only U.S. woman to finish the race. She came in 27th. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.

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