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Who’ll Call The Shots On Smog?

It’s still not clear who’ll call the shots on smog

26 days to go

Peter Simpson – Updated on Jul 13, 2008 – SCMP

There’s the mouthwatering prospect of many an Olympic showdown in 26 days, and two burning questions remain unanswered.

The first: will China beat the US in the medal count? No one can be sure but the smart money is on the home side.

The second is more opaque, more difficult to determine, yet its outcome might well determine the reputations of several key Olympic personalities that have emerged in this seven-year saga.

After contradictory comments this week by senior International Olympic Committee members, there is the prospect of a clash of opinions among Games chiefs gathered around the various monitoring systems that will measure air safety levels.

Confusion has long reigned over just how Beijing Environment Protection Bureau (BEPB) officials have been measuring the capital’s air.

To what standards, how and where they are taken, and what particular pollutants were being measured, has left many scratching their heads and others suspecting cover-ups and bogus figures.

From all the negatives that Games organiser Bocog has had to endure and overcome, it is its oldest bugbear – smog – that now threatens to tarnish the much-deserved universal praise for preparing what is expected to be one of the greatest Olympics.

It has been well documented that international experts are satisfied that outside events under one hour pose no long-term health risk to athletes. However, events that last more than an hour can lead to long-term lung and other respiratory damage.

But who will call the shots should the air prove too dangerous for endurance sports such as the marathons, race walking and road cycle races?

The answer, until this week, was perhaps one of the clearest, tangible elements to be seen through the smog that plagues the Olympic capital and which provided an unwelcome backdrop to the IOC’s final inspection.

IOC president Jacques Rogge has stated on several occasions – reiterated firmly, in fact – he will order the postponement of endurance events if the air quality is poor.

The IOC’s chief spokeswoman, Giselle Davies, underscored Rogge’s unquestionable authority this week.

“There is no change in that we [the IOC] shall determine whether endurance events will be postponed,” she said.

“There is a process in place during Games time to reschedule and we will activate it. We will be getting information [on the air quality] from the authorities on a daily basis, as well as their predictions for the next day,” she said.

“BEPB will share their data with us, Bocog and the international sports federations. And it will then be decided if the mechanism for rescheduling an event will be used.

“We have to work on the basis of trust and work with the data provided by the host nation.”

It’s expected every national team, as well as the international sports federations, will bring their own air-quality monitors.

The IOC will also dispatch a medical-cum-air testing taskforce of its own, headed by the chairman of the IOC medical commission, Arne Ljungqvist, to also inspect the air.

The reason for so many beeping monitors? BEPB has come in for the some stick over the past year, notably over its PM10 metre readings of dust and vehicle emission particles.

PM10, according to BEPB, rarely if ever strays into the danger zone but hovers around the upper limit of acceptable air quality deemed safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In January, respected environmental consultant Steven Andrews claimed BEPB officials had been fudging the city’s air-quality data by eliminating readings from some monitoring stations in heavily-congested areas. BEPB has repeatedly denied this.

However, tit-for-tat claims and denials would both be rendered redundant by the IOC, which has the ultimate responsibility to protect the athletes who compete under the organisation’s five rings. If a dispute arose on the day of the women’s marathon, say, with BEPB and Bocog officials arguing the air was safe and independent air testers arguing otherwise, Rogge would intervene and order a postponement.

He would do so no matter the humiliation felt by the hosts who have worked so hard and for so long to get the party perfect, only to see it tainted by the one element it believed it could control.

But doubt as to who calls the shots was cast this week by another senior IOC member.

Press commission chairman Kevan Gosper stressed that any rescheduling would be made only after consultations with Bocog and would “be a joint decision”.

“We will not overrule Bocog [on pollution concerns],” he said firmly.

“Every decision during the Games, as over the past seven years of preparation, will be done with close consultation with Bocog, as it is at every Games. Any postponement will be a joint decision. We have full confidence in the air quality data provided.”

This given, and with the stakes so high for both the IOC and Bocog to deliver on their promises, one would gladly pay more for a disguise as a fly on the wall at any potential stand-off over between what is safe air and what is not, than for an opening ceremony ticket on eBay.

Moreover, the reputations and risk assessment capabilities of many will be determined by a Games free of pollution.

For Rogge, et al, being seen to kowtow to a host city and accept data that might be skewed to allow an endurance event to go ahead, could cause many to suggest the Olympic family has given in to an overbearing sibling.

Like the shiny new buildings that dot Olympic Beijing’s skyline, the answer to just who will call the shots on air-quality judgment day is far from clear.

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