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Clean-Air Pledge In Wake Of Gebrselassie Bombshell

Peter Simpson in Beijing – Updated on Mar 12, 2008 – SCMP

Games organiser Bocog and the mainland’s State Environmental Protection Administration formed a united front yesterday as they set about limiting the possible damage caused by the announcement by Ethiopian ace Haile Gebrselassie that he would not compete in the marathon because of Beijing’s air pollution.

Gebrselassie (pictured), the world record holder over the distance and also an asthmatic, said on Sunday he was not willing to risk his health in the capital for a marathon medal and there are fears in some quarters that his decision might cause other athletes to reconsider their participation in the August Games.

“Athletes should look again at the records we have that show the air in Beijing is getting cleaner and will be clean for the Olympics,” Bocog spokesman Sun Weide said. “They should check the facts again.”

He refused to be drawn on whether Bocog would seek to have the distance ace reconsider his decision, saying: “We welcome all athletes to the Games and remind them we have taken great measures and spent 120 billion yuan clearing up the air. Our efforts are paying off.”

His confidence was backed by State Environmental Protection Administration vice-minister Zhang Lijun, who took time out from the National People’s Congress to respond to the latest development threatening to cloud the momentous Olympic effort.

Pollution-cutting measures in Beijing and surrounding areas were being intensified to make sure the air met required standards, said Zhang. “After we have implemented all the measures, there is no problem for Beijing to meet the standards,” he said. “We can deliver on our commitment.”

Gebrselassie’s agent said the star would still run in the 10,000m race, but would wait until the London Olympics in 2012 to run in the classic event. His ultimate aim is to run a marathon in two hours and three minutes. He set the benchmark last September at two hours, four minutes and 26 seconds.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has repeatedly expressed confidence in Bocog’s ability to clean the air for the Games but did not rule out intervening and rescheduling endurance events like the marathon. Concerned by fears among athletes, it recently asked for the latest data from Beijing which IOC analysts are now scrutinising.

“We expect to make known our findings within the next week,” said IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau.

The world’s top athletics body, the International Athletics Association Federation (IAAF), played down concerns one of the most popular Olympic events would be diminished by Gebrselassie’s absence.

“I am sure Haile has withdrawn because of his fears that the pollution will affect his asthma. But the statistics show that most top marathon runners avoid hot and humid races if they can. Beijing will be hot and humid,” said IAAF spokesman Chris Turner.

“However, if the runner pulls out of the 10,000m race, then Bocog have got a real problem with the pollution on their hands [because other athletes might pull out]. Training for the 10,000m is the same as training for the marathon, so we’ll have to wait and see what he does,” he added.

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