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Pollution Leaves Dark Cloud Hanging Over Olympics

BEIJING (AFP) — Beijing and co-host Olympic city Hong Kong were Monday blanketed in smog just 11 days before the Games, raising the stakes for organisers who were planning more emergency measures to clear the air.

Despite years of efforts to rid the Chinese capital of its notorious pollution and a raft of recent attempts at quick fixes, a typically thick haze cut visibility across Beijing to a few hundred metres.

With some athletes already training in Beijing and elsewhere in China, the persistent pollution was jeopardising China’s promise of a “Green Games”.

“I heard today if you are trying to look at the Olympic stadium, you can’t see it from 500 metres (1,600 feet). It’s awful, I think,” Dutch football coach Foppe de Haan said in Hong Kong, where his team is preparing for the Games.

Adding to the swirl of bad publicity for China, Greenpeace released a report saying Beijing’s air quality was still well short of international guidelines.

And a Japanese company that makes industrial-strength dust masks said Japan’s Olympic delegation would take 500 of his products to Beijing to guard against the pollution.

Last week Beijing ordered more than a million of the nation’s 3.3 million cars from the roads and closed dozens of polluting factories, apparently with little impact.

In a last-ditch bid to clear the skies before the Games start on August 8, the state-run China Daily newspaper said the government may ban 90 percent of private cars and close more factories.

The China Daily, citing an official with the city’s environmental bureau among others, said contingency measures such as the more extreme car ban could be implemented two days before the Games.

“We will implement an emergency plan 48 hours in advance (of the Games) if the air quality deteriorates,” Li Xin, a senior engineer with the bureau, was quoted as saying.

Nevertheless, the Beijing Olympics organising committee said it was still confident athletes would have little to worry about in regards to pollution.

“With the measures we have taken, we are fully confident that we can ensure clean air for the Games,” committee spokesman Sun Weide told AFP, adding some of the solutions would need more time to show results.

The pollution woes were not confined to just Beijing, reflecting the long-standing problems across China as the environment has taken a back seat to economic development over the past 30 years.

In Hong Kong, which will host the equestrian events, the city’s air pollution level was classified as high and horses preparing for the Games were forced to train in the smog.

A spokesman for the Equestrian Company, which is responsible for hosting the Olympic equestrian events, said a range of high-tech measures had been employed to protect the horses.

“We have kept our horses in a high-ceilinged, six-star stable,” the spokesman told AFP.

In its report, Greenpeace said levels of particulates, one of the major measures of pollution, were still twice as high in Beijing as recommended by the World Health Organisation.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge warned last year that poor air quality during the Games could result in the suspension of endurance races such as long-distance cycling and the marathon.

However there have been no specific pollution levels given that would trigger the suspension of an event, and Greenpeace called on the IOC to issue minimum environmental standards for future Olympics.

Alongside pollution, security has become one of the highest-profile Olympic concerns for China.

The government has warned that alleged terrorists from China’s Muslim-populated northwest Xinjiang region were planning attacks on the Olympics.

But the state-run Xinhua news agency denied claims by a separatist group claiming to represent people in Xinjiang that it was behind recent deadly bus bombings in Shanghai and the southwestern city of Kunming.

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