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Calm Whitfield Breathing Easier Than Most

Doug Smith – The Star – July 30, 2008

Pictures from Beijing paint a bleak picture of lung-clogging pollution and a grey haze engulfing what will be the centre of the sports universe when the Olympics begin next week.

They are splattered over the front pages of newspapers as a reminder of the horrific conditions that might greet athletes when the Games open.

From his relatively idyllic home in Victoria, triathlete Simon Whitfield sees them and has a wish.

“I’m just hoping everything’s been Photoshopped,” the former Olympic gold medallist said.

But even as Whitfield hopes that reality changes and things aren’t as bad as many expect, the Games continue to lurch from controversy to controversy as the opening ceremonies draw nearer.

A day after allegations of falsified ages for young gymnasts rocked the host country and the satellite equestrian venue was worried about the possibility of bird flu in the area, journalists found yesterday that access to several Internet sites was being blocked by Chinese officials, a breach of promises made during the run-up to the Games.

The blocked sites will make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, particularly on political and human rights stories the government dislikes. Yesterday, sites such as Amnesty International or any search for a site with Tibet in the address could not be opened at the main press centre, which will house about 5,000 print journalists when the Games open Aug. 8.

But things like Internet access, the age of competitors and the possibility of bird flu in Hong Kong don’t really affect Whitfield, who is taking things quite calmly as his third Olympics approach.

The 33-year-old, a surprise gold medallist in Sydney eight years ago and 11th in Athens in 2004, figures it does him no good to get worried about what the conditions might be when he races.

“I could condemn it, I could praise it and nothing will change,” he said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

Easing his mind a little bit is the fact he won’t be in the middle of Beijing soaking up whatever irritants are floating in the air.

The triathlon venue is a bit more than an hour outside the city and Whitfield and his Canadian teammates will be ensconced there, rather than in the athletes’ village.

He admits the possibility of breath-sapping pollution is “alarming” for fans and competitors who will be right in the city, but not for him or his teammates.

“I’m not too concerned about it,” he said. “I’m pretty confident it won’t be a problem. I’ve raced there twice before and we haven’t had any problems with pollution.”

Whitfield said the decision to live outside the village had nothing to do with conditions there.

“I think we responded to the fact other countries have done that,” he said, singling out teams from Australia, Great Britain, Spain and New Zealand as other medal-hopeful countries who are living near the venue. “What we’re doing, basically, is evening the playing field.”

The digs aren’t too bad, either. Whitfield jokingly referred to the team’s accommodations as “the most ridiculous mansion you’ve ever seen,” hardly the kind of dorm rooms that mark an athletes’ village.

“I think it’s got a two-storey aquarium,” he said.

It will also house the small but important support team Whitfield needs, including coaches and massage therapists.

“We don’t technically have a chef, we have a guy who may help us with groceries,” he said.

In a decision he said was made during Olympic planning about two years ago, Whitfield won’t even get to Beijing until the second week of the Games, five days before his race. That’s about two days earlier than he would normally get to a competition and should be enough time to get acclimated to China.

“I’ll be watching (the opening ceremonies) from a bike shop here in Victoria,” he said.

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