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IOC Sends Mixed Signals On Pollution

Officials say Beijing unfairly targeted but also that some athletes will be at risk Peter Simpson and Martin Zhou in Beijing – Updated on Mar 18, 2008 – SCMP

Beijing has been unfairly targeted over its notorious pollution, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) medical chief claimed yesterday – and in the next breath admitted some athletes will be at risk during the Games.

IOC Medical Commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist warned asthma sufferers to be on their guard and ruled out records being broken because of the suffocating smog and humidity cocktail threat.

Competitors in endurance events were most at risk, he said, before applauding under-siege Beijing for its huge clean-up campaign.

“Beijing has probably been unfairly targeted [over its pollution battle]. It’s probably fair to say that,” he said. “But we did identify four outdoor events that include a minimum of one hour continuous physical effort at high level [including the marathon, cycling and triathlon], where the findings indicate there may be some risk. They’d be associated with prolonged high-risk respiratory functions. [Athletes] may breathe a lot of air that may be polluted. We may not see world records in unfavourable conditions.”

The IOC examined data taken by Games organisers Bocog and the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau at some of last year’s test events, which took place during the planned Olympic period, August 8-29. Some endurance events could be rescheduled if daily monitoring carried out by several independent groups declared wind, humidity and pollution to be damaging to health, Ljungqvist said during a teleconference from Sweden

“People with asthma may suffer more than others,” he conceded.

When asked if endurance competitors with asthma should follow the example set by fellow sufferer and multiple Olympic champion, Haile Gebrselassie, who is to snub the marathon on health grounds, Ljungqvist said: “Gebrselassie’s decision is a private one but I would not say his example should be the gold standard for others.

“Our experience and data do not support that this will become a problem for the vast majority of athletes participating in Beijing.”

Ljungqvist said rescheduling an event would not be a new thing, citing a tennis match at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that was stopped because of the heat. But he added: “This is the first time air pollution has become an issue.”

Various claims from international environmentalists that mainland authorities were falsifying their figures forced the IOC to launch an unprecedented probe a few weeks ago. For the first time in Olympic history IOC chiefs demanded Bocog hand over findings from the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau for independent examination.

The results left the IOC “full of confidence” in Beijing’s air cleaning and record keeping, Ljungqvist said.

However, he did not offer any figures to back the new mood – and he refused to name the four independent pollution experts who gave Beijing a healthy air quality report. Such omissions are likely to ensure some suspicion remains.

However, the IOC’s thumbs up will come as a welcome respite from the Tibet storm that has engulfed the games’ final preparations.

The deputy head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, Du Shaozhong, said the IOC’s findings proved “conclusively” that his department and Bocog were cleaning up the air with transparency.

“I can assure athletes we are doing our best and we still have five months to go. During this time, we are confident of making all the events fit for all competitors,” he said.

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