Beijing pollution no threat to athletes: IOC
By Karolos Grohmann
ATHENS (Reuters) - Pollution at the Beijing Olympics poses no immediate threat to athletes' health but could affect world-class performances, the International Olympic Committee's top medical official Arne Ljungqvist said on Monday.
"I believe the conditions will be good for athletes although they will not necessarily be ideal," the IOC medical commission chief told reporters in a conference call from Sweden.
"There may be some risks," he added. "They would be associated with prolonged high risk respiratory functions. (Athletes) may breathe a lot of air that may be polluted. We may not see world records in unfavorable conditions."
Marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, who suffers from exercise-related asthma, told Reuters last week he would not run the 42.195-km event because he feared Beijing's air pollution was a threat to his health.
The two-times Olympic 10,000 meters champion, who will attempt to qualify for that event in Beijing, is one of a long list of athletes and officials to have voiced concern over pollution in the Chinese capital.
Ljungqvist, who said he was pleasantly surprised by a recent pollution data analysis from a period in Aug 2007, said athletes suffering from asthma could be more affected than other competitors.
"People with asthma may suffer more than others. Gebrselassie's decision is a private one but I would not say his example should be the golden standard for others," Ljungqvist said.
"Our experience and data do not support that this will become a problem for the vast majority of athletes participating in Beijing," he said.
He said several events demanding high respiratory function for more than an hour could be rescheduled, depending on pollution and other factors such as heat, humidity and wind.
"For a few sports where we do see a possible risk, we will monitor the situation daily during Games time, and take whatever decisions are needed at the time to ensure the athletes' health is protected," Ljungqvist said.
These include urban road cycling, mountain bike, marathon, triathlon and road walking events.
Ljungqvist said the IOC would be monitoring the situation and, in conjunction with the relevant international sports federations involved, would take action if necessary.
He said rescheduling was not a new thing for the IOC, citing a tennis match at the Barcelona 1992 Olympics that was stopped due to heat.
But he added: "This is the first time air pollution has become an issue."
Data which the IOC analyzed recently from last year's tests events during the period Aug 8-29 2007, roughly the same period as this summer's Games, showed there was no reason for heightened concern.
"The analysis is better than I had expected myself. I see no reason for cancelling events," Ljungqvist said.
Unfettered growth over the past three decades has crippled China's already fragile ecosystems and the resulting problems have sparked social unrest and are crimping the economy.
An estimated 1,000 new cars are introduced to Beijing's streets every day.
Beijing Games officials have said a number of contingency plans had been drawn up, including banning up to a million cars from the capital during the Games, should the pollution data show no signs of improving during the Olympics. (Take a look at the Countdown to Beijing blog at http://blogs.reuters.com/china)
(Editing by Trevor Huggins)