Boosted by IOC, China shrugs off pollution concerns

Despite being hidden away in a courtyard behind a tall building, the Beijing Environmental Protection Monitoring Centre will take a front seat during the August Olympics. ( dpa )

It is here that all data from 27 air quality stations and 47 factory emission stations around the Chinese capital is gathered and then passed on to the Olympic authorities to ensure safe competition for the 10,500 athletes.

China may be under immense political pressure around the unrest in Tibet, but with a boycott of the Games' competition seemingly ruled out, the pollution issue will take centre stage once the competition commences on August 9.

Marathon world recordholder Haile Gebrselassie in recent weeks named competing in Beijing "suicidal," speaking out over widespread concern that pollution could be an even bigger enemy for the athletes than the expected sweltering heat.

The concern is also there among the International Olympic Committee which early this week did not rule out that endurance events such as the marathon, cycling road races or the triathlon could be subject of rescheduling over the issue.

"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," said IOC medical committee director Arne Ljungqvist.

But he added in reference to data collected in August 2007: "Analysis of air quality data to date indicates that the health of the vast majority of athletes competing in the 2008 Olympic Games will not be impaired.

"The IOC is confident that measures already put in place, plus those planned by Beijing organizers and city authorities, will continue to improve the city's air quality leading up to - and during - the Games."

Determined to impress the world in every aspect of the Games, the Chinese almost literally moved mountains to make sure of this.

"We have shut down a coal plant. A steel plant was rebuilt and relocated 200 kilometres away. Cement and coal-burning plants will be shut down early and carry out maintenance works during the Games," communications deputy director Shao Shiwei from the organizing committee BOCOG told reporters this week.

Shao wiped Gebrselassie's statements off the table as a "subjective judgement," but it remains to be seen how good the air will really be August 8-24 - and in future years.

The monitoring centre will be the key player and set up an international team in close contact with the IOC to ensure athletes' safety.

Traffic restrictions may work in their favour as around 70 per cent of the 3.2 million vehicles (up from 1 million in 1997) in the congested metropolis are to be kept off the roads.

But weather conditions could make the situation difficult after all, as a constant haze - plus plenty of dust on Tuesday - even prevailed in this cool week of spring.

And if nothing works and the pollution issue makes negative headlines, China will likely provide a humble excuse.

"The Olympics are held in a truly developing country, we will try to improve our imperfection. Beijing is still a developing metropolis which faces the same challenges as other big cities," said Shao.

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