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Athletes’ Feathers Ruffled At Bird’s Nest

Walkers complain about ‘dangerously hard’ surface surrounding new stadium

Peter Simpson in Beijing and Agence France-Presse – Updated on Apr 19, 2008

China’s new “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium hobbled into the history books yesterday.

Concerns about the surface underfoot and eye-watering smog marred the long-awaited competition debut at the 3.5 billion yuan (HK$3.9 billion) centrepiece Olympic venue. “I think this course is very hard. I think for today’s 50km race it will be dangerous,” claimed Hatem Ghoula of Tunisia, one of 50 athletes who took part in the inaugural 20km IAAF men’s race walk test event.

Seven of the top finishers complained of unfinished and uneven surfaces, while others said pollution affected their performance.

Winner Australian Jared Tallent said the course was hard underfoot.

“It is quite hard on the legs being concrete. It does cause a lot more of an impact, especially for the 50km race,” said the 23-year-old Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, who clocked one hour and 20 minutes to become the first athlete to collect a gold medal in the iconic 91,000 seat stadium.

He added: “It is not what we are used to because 90 per cent of the time we race on asphalt.”

The walkers completed three laps of the stadium track before filing out to race nine times around a 2km looped circuit before returning to the Bird’s Nest for the finish.

Local hopes of a morale boost were dashed when Inner Mongolian teenager Wang Hao came in behind Tallent.

However, notching a personal best time of one hour, 20 minutes and 25 seconds, Wang gave a foretaste of the expected victories to come as China’s athletic stars prepare to get into their winning strides for the Games.

However, he also was unhappy with the course.

“We have never raced on such a hard surface. We train and race on roads, which is a bit different,” the 18-year-old said.

The poor air in the capital also affected some competitors and spectators eyes – a hanky-dabbing reminder that much needs to be done to ensure smog does not let down the dazzling facilities come August.

Third-placed Mexican Eder Sanchez, who recorded his best time of the season in 1:20.57, said the air quality was similar to that in his native Mexico and his eyes had been watering after 15km.

“It hurt my performance a little,” he said, adding that the hard ground also reduced speed and added wear on bones and joints.

“The hard ground has a bigger impact on the athletes’ heels and you can feel it in the knees,” he said.

Organisers said the IAAF race-walking challenge – which includes the 50km race which starts this morning – is part of dozens of test events designed to highlight problems with the venues before the August 8-24 Games.

“We will report all these questions to the competition manager who is in charge of this stadium. That is what a test event is for,” said stadium spokesman Chen Shuxu.

Tomorrow sees a marathon test event finish in the stadium and the next Olympic dress rehearsal is the China Open athletics competition from May 22 to 25.

Despite yesterday’s teething problems, 3000 cheering local fans caught a sense of the awe the impressive stadium inspires in athletes and spectators.

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