Athletes Struggle for Air Amid China's Pollution One year before the Beijing Olympics begin, air pollution in China is causing a lot of concern. This September, the Women's World Cup of Soccer will take place in China. Recently, the Canadian team trained in Beijing and found breathing difficult.
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Athletes Struggle for Air Amid China's Pollution

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Athletes Struggle for Air Amid China's Pollution

Athletes Struggle for Air Amid China's Pollution

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.

It's been a week of festivities in Beijing, the start of the one-year countdown to the 2008 Olympics. Despite the extravaganza, the president of the International Olympic Committee had cautionary words. He warned that some events next August may have to be postponed if the city can't improve its air quality.

Chinese cities such as Beijing are notoriously polluted. And we may soon get a clear indication of the air quality for athletes next month when the Women's World Cup of Soccer begins. Earlier this year, the Canadian national soccer team trained in Beijing and found that breathing was not easy.

Greg Anderson is the Canadian team's exercise physiologist, and he went on that trip to China. He joins us now. Welcome Dr. Anderson.


NORRIS: So the team was in China in April and May to train, and I understand that the air there was quite different than what they're accustomed to in Canada. How did it affect the players?

ANDERSON: Well, about four days in, they ended up with a low-grade inflammation at the back of their throat. The mucus was being produced to try and trap all the particulate matter in the air, which is very high. And...

NORRIS: Particulate matter. So you could actually feel the grit?

ANDERSON: Yeah. Absolutely. And the grit builds up and you have to try and spit it out and get it - clear the back of your throat five, six days in.

NORRIS: Well, this is difficult. I mean, soccer is a real endurance sport. There's no chance to stop and rest, 45-minute halfs. The air quality will make quite a difference in the quality of play.

ANDERSON: Absolutely. And the particulate matter is sort of happens on a day-to-day living issue. And then once you play and you start to have high airflows in and out of your lungs, the really high ozone levels in Beijing cause a real burning sensation in your lungs. And so when they were playing and doing some of the high intensity drills we were doing over there, they started to really feel this burning sensation in their lungs as well, which was sort of startling to them.

NORRIS: Now, I know that athletes will often go high-altitude training destinations in order to get ready for a game. How do you prep for something like this?

ANDERSON: Well, there's no prepping for the pollution. Really, what you need to do is you need to get them acclimatized to the heat and humidity and the time zone. So lots of teams, for example, have already rented facilities in Indonesia or somewhere down in Thailand, Singapore, in the time zone, has the same heat and humidity. You really want to keep them out of the pollution until the day that they're going to compete.

NORRIS: You don't want to - you wouldn't find the biggest smoke stack in town and try to run wingspans(ph) beneath it.

ANDERSON: No. No. You'll really try to keep the lungs as healthy as possible, right up to the minute that we can go and compete.

NORRIS: I imagine you could wear mask or anything like that.

ANDERSON: We could wear masks for the daily living.

NORRIS: But not on the field?

ANDERSON: No, but not on the field.

NORRIS: Now, how worried are about this? After your visit to China, do you think that pollution could really interfere with the Summer Games in 2008?

ANDERSON: Well, it's quite startling actually because when we were there, the pollution index was rather high, extremely high. The best day that we saw on either side of the girls being there with about 170. The worst day would have a pollution index at 240. And to put that into perspective, Washington, D.C., probably sits 30 to 40 on a daily basis. Health warnings would come in at about 60 for heart disease and respiratory disease. And at 90, they would tell everybody to stay inside than had any potential health problems.

NORRIS: What do you do immediately after a game if you've been playing in all that grit?

ANDERSON: Really, there's not a whole lot you can do to counteract the pollution effects other than get them hydrated and create some mucus and spit some of the stuff out, and trying to get it to move out of your lungs and...

NORRIS: Pardon me, this is a rather indelicate question. But can you spit on a soccer field?


ANDERSON: Oh, it's really funny because when we were there, the Chinese government was trying to stop spitting in public. And I'm going, that's the only thing that's keeping them alive. I don't think you should be stopping the spittings of your population.

NORRIS: So if you can't spit on the street, can you spit on a soccer field?

ANDERSON: Well, as long as you're not spitting at somebody, I'm sure it would be okay.

NORRIS: Well, Dr. Anderson, all the best to you and your team. Thanks so much for talking to us.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was Greg Anderson. He's an exercise physiologist at University College of the Fraser Valley in Canada. And he's working with the Canadian women's soccer team.

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