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January 24, 2008

Beijing Olympics Will Leave Athletes Gasping

The Beijing Olympics are going to be quite a spectacle, and not just because of the events. It sounds like Beijing's polluted air will be the athletes' greatest competitor. Many countries are setting up their training camps away from the enervating effects, some of them as far away as Japan and South Korea. The U.S. track and field teams will be based about 250 miles to the east in the peninsular city of Dalian.

"The magnitude of the pollution in Beijing is not something we know how to deal with. It's a foreign environment. It's like feeding an athlete poison," said David Martin, a respiratory expert who is helping train U.S. marathoners.

Frank Filiberto, a physician for the U.S. boxing team, thought concerns about Beijing's pollution were exaggerated -- until he came to visit.

In November, he accompanied 11 boxers to the Chinese capital for a competition. On their first morning there, Filiberto said, the men returned from their daily 20-minute training run complaining of burning eyes, coughing, congestion and breathing difficulties. Only six of the 11 boxers ended up feeling well enough to compete.

"In my opinion boxers are probably the finest athletes in the world," Filiberto said. "But they didn't think they could make it three rounds in Beijing." Filiberto and the coaches were so alarmed that they ordered the boxers to jog only in hotel hallways thereafter.

Randall L. Wilber, the U.S. Olympic Committee's senior sports physiologist, has come to Beijing a half-dozen times since March 2006 to study the effects of pollution on athletic performance. He concluded that it could be "huge."

I wouldn't want to run in that. When the wind blows the wrong way here in Los Angeles, I can feel it immediately in my lungs when I'm running (though not as badly as when I was in London). And I don't have the super-powered bellows of an Olympic competitor. The U.S. Track and Field team is looking at using face masks even though the protective gear will slow them down during events.

The article notes that countries are also concerned that bad food, containing carcinogens, pesticides, and drugs could sideline the athletes. Perhaps the political nature of the city selection for the games needs to give greater weight to the environmental conditions of the candidate cities. How "huge" could the effect of pollution be?

Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a Boulder, Colo., bicyclist who competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and is a contender for a spot on this year's U.S. mountain biking team, said that when he arrived in the Chinese capital, the sky was a crystal-clear blue and he thought that concerns about pollution had been overblown. But on the day he was to race, he said, the smog was so thick "you could barely see a few city blocks" from his hotel window.

About 20 minutes into the race, Horgan-Kobelski started having trouble breathing.

"I struggled with it for a while," he said in a phone interview. "You're breathing as hard as you can but you feel like your muscles don't want to work. You're filling your lungs but you don't know what's going in there."

About halfway through the roughly 30-mile race, Horgan-Kobelski said, "my body sort of shut down." He pulled over and vomited.

It wasn't until he got to the athletes' lounge that he learned that he wasn't unique. Only eight of 47 contestants in the men's race finished; the others, including the Chinese riders, also suffered from breathing problems and dropped out.

Only eight of forty-seven finished? Yes, in mountain biking you usually have some guys drop out before the end. But not that many. I'm not surprised that the U.S. team considers a little lost speed a reasonable trade-off if it means actually finishing an event.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 04:42 AM

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