Beijing pollution worries some Olympic athletes

Tyson Gay has heard stories that some athletes may wear face masks at the Beijing Olympics, hoping to fend off fumes in one of the world’s most polluted capitals.

”I hear a lot of people saying, ‘You’ll have to wear a mask, you’ll have to do this or that,”’ the 100m and 200m world champion said on Monday on a visit to Beijing. ”Everyone has to run in it. I’m not going to let something like that distract me.”

Several American officials have said their athletes would not compete wearing masks, which would embarrass the host nation. Gay said he agreed with that line of thinking.

”I’m sorry, I couldn’t do that [wear a mask],” he said.

Gay said he would train in Hong Kong and might arrive in Beijing a week before the opening of the Olympics. He seemed convinced that Beijing organisers would close factories, stop feverish construction and ban more than one million vehicles from the roads to keep sooty air from staining China’s highly polished preparations for the August 8 to 24 Olympics.

He was, however, in the minority among a small group of elite athletes visiting on Monday to inspect the facilities and do promotions for sporting goods maker Adidas, a major Olympic sponsor.

Several said they would stay away from Beijing until the last moment, choosing to train in Japan or nearby. Others will simply stay home, like Texan Jeremy Wariner, the defending Olympic and world 400m champion.

Haile Gebrselassie, recognised as the world’s greatest distance runner and holder of the world marathon record, said he might skip the Olympic marathon and opt for the shorter 10 000m.

”The pollution is the most important thing,” Gebrselassie said. ”Actually, when we talk about the pollution, it’s not only during the Olympic Games. What about the people here? They are really suffering.”

He said he’d be training outside China and would need a few more months to decide about the Olympics.

”Compared to other events, the marathon is very hard to do here in Beijing,” he said. ”To run more than two hours in these kinds of conditions is really very, very difficult. I’m sure the organisers of Beijing — they have to do something special for the marathon otherwise it’s very difficult to run. Just to walk it’s really hard, too.”

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has warned several times that endurance events would be postponed if air pollution presented a danger.

Beijing has begun shutting down blast furnaces in the city’s biggest steel company to improve air quality. It is also expected to enact temporary traffic restrictions during the Games to ease traffic and reduce vehicle exhaust.

Ground-level dust, soot and industrial emissions mixed with car exhaust create a gray haze that often blankets the city of 17-million.

Jana Rawlinson of Australia, the world champion in the 400m hurdles, said she would train in Japan and arrive in Beijing on August 15 — a week after the Games open.

”Our sports science people have said that you can’t adapt to the pollution,” she said. ”You can adapt to the humidity and the environment, but pollution is not something your body can get used to. That’s Australia’s research. Whether it’s the truth or not is up to different opinions. I am going to avoid it until I have to race in it.”

She acknowledged the pollution might not be as bad as expected, and said some athletes were a ”bit finicky.” She cited a personal example to show the pollution may not slow athletes in short races. ”I ran in Shanghai last year and they let off fireworks right before my final, so I could barely see my hurdles and I didn’t have a problem. The times didn’t seem to be effected.”

Wariner, who parted recently with long-time coach Clyde Hart, said he would stay home in Waco, Texas, and arrive in Beijing the day before the opening ceremony. He said he would skip a United States training camp, likely to be set up just outside Beijing.

”I feel like I’ll get better training at home,” said Wariner, who is now coached by Michael Ford, a Hart protégé.

”I don’t think the pollution is going to be as bad as some people say it will be,” he said. ”If it’s going to bother me, it’s going to bother all the other athletes. I mean, the pollution is going to be there for everybody.”

Teammate Allyson Felix, the world 200m champion, said she would arrive in China two weeks before the Olympics and attend the US training camp.

”I think I’m more concerned about the heat and I’d like to just get adjusted to it … I think the pollution is just something we’re going to have to deal with. Thankfully, it’s not for that long.” — Sapa-AP

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