Olympians Prepare For Beijing's Bad Air Pollution remains a major problem in Beijing, despite citywide efforts to reduce it in time for the Aug. 8 start of the Olympic Games. Coaches and athletes worry about how the poor air quality will affect health and performance.
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Olympians Prepare For Beijing's Bad Air

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Olympians Prepare For Beijing's Bad Air

Olympians Prepare For Beijing's Bad Air

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Deborah Amos. China has a pollution problem, so ahead of the Olympics the government is shutting down factories, limiting traffic, and even seeding clouds for rain. All of this to keep Beijing's notorious smog from polluting the Summer Olympics. Athletes and coaches have to figure out how to keep poor air quality from triggering poor performance. And they've concluded there's not much they can do, as NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: American triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker has already trained and competed at the Olympic triathlon course in Beijing.

Mr. JARROD SHOEMAKER (United States Triathlete): The last two years it's been pretty bad pollution, and you can really feel it - feel the particulate stuff getting into your lungs.

BERKES: Shoemaker spoke at a gathering of Olympic athletes and reporters. He's one of the endurance athletes most likely to be affected if pollution is severe at the games.

Mr. SHOEMAKER: And this past year, we didn't see the sun the whole time we were there. After the race, when we tried to talk or laugh or cough, it was pretty tough. I mean you could feel it in your lungs. There was a burning.

BERKES: It was tough just watching from the sidelines as the women raced.

Mr. SHOEMAKER: Trying to cheer was almost impossible, because we just couldn't take deep breaths.

BERKES: Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world, but the International Olympic Committee says most athletes won't be affected. The IOC does warn about outdoor endurance events lasting over an hour, including the triathlon, mountain biking, race walking, road cycling, and the swimming and running marathons.

Dr. ROBERT SALLIS (Sports Medicine Physician): It's going to be the toughest on those athletes, because they're going to be out there breathing hard for the longest amount of time.

BERKES: And breathing pollutants, notes Bob Sallis, former president of the American College of Sports Medicine. That could diminish performance, Sallis says, especially for those with an underlying lung disease.

Dr. SALLIS: Like asthma, or those who have allergic rhinitis, say, that would be triggered by the smoggy air. And certainly those that have asthma, particularly exercise-induced asthma, are going to be at a disadvantage. And that's just going to be a fact of life.

BERKES: Triathlete Julie Ertel is trying to offset that pollution double whammy.

Ms. JULIE ERTEL (United States Triathlete): I do have asthma and I have allergies. And so I'm just trying to take inventory of when that gets to be bad and when that is fairly good. So I've tried my different asthma medicines and different allergy medicines, and I'm trying to find the perfect combination that helps me breathe the best.

BERKES: That's a tricky calculation, because some of those medications could contain banned substances, and athletes need waivers to use them.

Chinese authorities have spent $10 billion on pollution controls since Beijing was named Olympics host. That's according to Jeff Ruffalo, a media consultant for Beijing Olympic organizers.

Mr. JEFF RUFFALO (Consultant, Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee): I think scientifically we've done everything possible and will continue up until games time and through games time to make it the best possible for athletes and visitors.

BERKES: The Beijing measures include moving or closing hundreds of factories, banning thousands of trucks, idling half the government's cars, forcing half the private cars to stay home, and covering dusty construction sites. Ruffalo says he noticed the difference immediately after some of this recently took effect.

Mr. RUFFALO: We've had two days of rather impressive blue sky days. It's been beautiful outside, and you just take it one day at a time.

BERKES: Blue skies don't sound like Beijing, so we asked Anthony Kuhn to take a look. He's NPR's Beijing correspondent. And the day after Ruffalo spoke, Kuhn sent this mini-report from the center of the city.

ANTHONY KUHN: There has definitely been an improvement in the air quality. The Beijing government calls days with good air quality here blue sky days. Well, sometimes it's hard to tell. Looking at the sky today, there's only a suggestion of blue peeking through the haze and the clouds.

BERKES: If the air is bad during the Olympics, endurance events will be delayed. Some teams are minimizing their exposure by training elsewhere. And U.S. athletes have been offered breathing masks to protect their lungs until they compete.

Philip Dunn is in the 50 kilometer race walk, which lasts four hours. But he says there's little any athlete can do about pollution, and that could be an advantage.

Mr. PHILIP DUNN (United States Athlete): I think of it as an equalizer. I think a lot of the athletes may either psychologically or physically be affected more than I would be. And I tend to do better in races where the conditions are tougher.

BERKES: Dunn and others say a much bigger threat is heat and humidity, and that can be addressed with training, hydration and nutrition. Athletes can even wear cooling vests right before they compete. But there's no magic bullet like that for smog, except a good rain, which would temporarily clear Beijing's bad air.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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