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Olympic Pollution

The Ottawa Citizen – Saturday, March 22, 2008

While debate has raged in recent days over whether countries or athletes should boycott the Beijing Olympics on political grounds, another kind of boycott has been quietly gaining strength — on environmental grounds.

One of the world’s leading long-distance runners, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, has pulled out of the Olympic marathon because of the risk Beijing’s pollution poses to his health. A Canadian equestrian has said she chose not to try out for Canada’s Olympic team because of concerns about heat and humidity — exacerbated by pollution — in Hong Kong, where the equestrian events will be held.

In an attempt to protect athletes, Olympic committees around the world are considering everything from issuing masks — the British Olympic Committee is looking at this option — to having inhalers at the ready even for athletes who are not asthmatic. Some say that all athletes should wear contact lenses to protect their eyes from pollutants. Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee, concedes that some competitions may have to be postponed or delayed due to pollution. All of which should surprise no one.

Beijing is one of the most polluted cities in the world. It was so when the Olympic Games was awarded and it may be even more polluted by the time the Olympics begins, despite China’s assurances that air quality will have improved by then. In the middle of an unprecedented growth spurt, fuelled, in part, by the Olympics itself, that is tough to do.

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