Sunday, July 08, 2007

Beijing pollution becomes hard to swallow

Athletes and coaches will find air quality hard to ignore next summer

The Province: Published: Sunday, July 08, 2007 - Ah, fresh air. Something we all too often take for granted. After fighting for every breath during a recent game with the national team in China, I've learned to value the joy of taking a deep breath of clean, crisp, pollution-free Canadian air.

Many high-level athletes can claim they've seen it all. Beijing, home to the 2008 Summer Olympics, will present a challenge most of them have never faced before.

Beijing has a pollution index that can reach a 270 rating. That makes a stroll down the sidewalk something that makes you wheeze. Imagine playing a 90-minute soccer game, or running the 1,500-metre race in those conditions.

Pollution levels in Vancouver vary between 20 and 24. On a bad day it hits 35, at which point a warning is issued. Luckily for us, that rarely happens.

On a normal day in Beijing the pollution level is around 190 -- and that's considered a good day. In 2001 Beijing won the 2008 games with a commitment to clean up the environment and host a "green" Olympics.

In the past six years, they've spent billions planting trees and building parks. They've also tried to rein in the coal-burning power plants and major industries that churn out pollution.

Until this spring I had never been to China, so I don't know what it was like before the clean-up began. But, after spending just over a week in what is still considered one of the world's most polluted cities, it was hard to believe they'd made much progress.

On our trip to China, our team brought along exercise physiologist Dr. Greg Anderson to measure the impact pollution would have on our bodies and performance. We took respiratory tests and did fitness testing and compared the results to those we'd recorded in Vancouver. On average team members saw a 10 per cent drop in aerobic capacity and many felt sharp chest pains after intense activity.

According to Dr. Anderson "high ozone levels in China, combined with exercise and high air flow" caused a burning sensation in the lungs. After a few days there you feel a constant lump in the back of your throat.

We were told that "lump" was pollution debris, called "particulate matter." The use of an inhaler became regular practice to many who had never been diagnosed with asthma before.

By day seven most of us had developed an unattractive spitting habit, constantly trying to clear our throats. I finally understood why my great aunt Agnes -- a chain smoker for over 50 years -- had such a terrible cough. I felt like I had been smoking a pack-a-day my entire life.

It's hard to tell in which way the pollution will affect the 2008 Olympics. Will athletes struggle equally? Probably not. Those countries with the ability to relocate and prepare for the games in Beijing may be at an advantage.

It may be the country with the best team of scientists that comes out on top. Or it may just be that viewers all over the world will determine these games to be the least entertaining in history, as the athletes hack and cough their way through events.

It's far from futile, but Beijing has a long way to go. Rather than improving, recent findings show the situation is actually getting worse. An outspoken vice minister at the State Environmental Protection Agency said this week the pollution problem was magnifying as China's primary focus continued to be on economic growth.

Under-reporting and doctored numbers also make it hard for the rest of the world to really gauge the problem. This week London's Financial Times newspaper reported that the World Bank had been pressured by the Chinese government to delete data from a report showing that each year 750,000 premature deaths are caused by pollution in China.

Athletes, coaches and Olympic committees all over the world will have to consider that aside from the usual challenges, like questionable judging, poor refereeing, false starts, bad weather, steroids and injuries, the complete lack of fresh air is going to be a major factor in the 2008 summer games.

Kara Lang will be playing for Canada in China at the Women's World Cup of soccer in September, and hopes to play there during the Olympics in 2008.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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