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Forget The Smog, Heat’s The Worry

Marathon champ Baldini echoes Radcliffe’s concern

Peter Simpson in Beijing – SCMP – Updated on Apr 18, 2008

Fearless Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini says he’s not afraid of Beijing’s notorious smog – and defiantly ruled out wearing a mask to defend his 2004 Athens title.

As pollution choked the mainland capital and host of the 2008 Games for the fourth day in a row yesterday, the Italian gave the beleaguered Beijing Olympic organisers another welcome confidence boost.

“I don’t think that running one race in these conditions would have any effect on your health,” said the European champion.

“It’s true that we have to worry about it because the situation is serious. But I’m not worried that August will be as bad as it is now.”

He acknowledged some runners who suffer from asthma – like serial marathon champion Haile Gebrselassie – faced health risks and then bluntly said “no mask” when asked if would consider wearing one.

He then fell into stride alongside British women’s marathon world record holder and asthma sufferer Paula Radcliffe, who last week insisted she believed that heat and humidity would be more of a threat at the Olympics and that Beijing’s air quality has been exaggerated.

“The pollution could affect the results, but I believe heat and humidity will have a bigger effect,” Baldini added at the end his three-day inspection visit.

But he’s ruled out running in Sunday’s test event marathon, which ends in the Bird’s Nest Stadium, because of injuries.

The centrepiece venue threw open its doors today for its first test event, the IAAF men’s race-walking competition.

Unlike many athletes who are delaying their arrival in Beijing until the last possible moment, Baldini will arrive about 10 days ahead of the early morning race to pound the roads in training.

“The biggest problem could be 10-12 days before, in the sense that the pollution might have a bigger effect than during the race itself,” said Baldini’s coach Luciano Gigliotti.

Yet no matter how hard he tried to convince reporters that he was not troubled by the threat of smog, Baldini admitted it was having a psychological affect on his high-altitude training in the mountains of Italy and Switzerland.

“I haven’t ever run in a similar polluted situation. I really haven’t seen such a polluted sky anywhere else. Other places where the sky is blue, may be there is pollution, but you can’t see it. Here you see it, you sense it,” he said.

He dismissed claims the marathon had been diminished by the high-profile pullout of Gebrselassie, who earlier this year lashed the Games organisers over air quality.

He said the race would have to be an intelligent one from the runners’ point of view as the conditions would force them to think carefully about their tactics. “The gap between the fastest and slowest will be narrowed,” he predicted.

He tipped London Marathon winner Martin Lel of Kenya to be his closest gold medal rival but said all African runners posed a serious threat.

“I do believe I have a good chance because of my experience,” Baldini said. “I already have several medals in important championships. That experience counts a lot for this event. The Olympic marathon is a totally different marathon from other marathons.”

No matter how hard the Olympian tried to run the positive line during his press call yesterday, however, politics, like the smog, hung heavy in the air.

“There is sadness for the situation in Tibet, because I don’t like what I see. But there are many other situations around the world that are similar. These are things that are not nice to see,” he said.

He said a boycott had never crossed his mind despite being under pressure in Italy to respond to the recent Tibetan unrest.

He admitted that he held “a personal opinion” over recent non-sport events, but added: “I am someone who likes to follow what the rules are [on speaking out on political issues] during the Olympics.”

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