July 25, 2008 -- Athletes from around the world -- representing the pinnacle of physical skill and conditioning -- will be converging in Beijing next month for the 2008 Olympic Games -- pushing the limits of their bodies and striving for international greatness.
The air they'll be breathing, though, isn't in the same league. Athletes may be competing in thick soot and smog, dangerous ozone levels, and air quality ranked among the world's worst.
These environmental conditions are alarming athletes, doctors, and other health advocates, who are questioning how Beijing's air quality will affect the Olympic athletes' performance -- along with the short-term health of competitors, who have been training years for this event.
"It's like living in the middle of a construction zone," says Bob Lanier, MD, a Fort Worth-based allergy and asthma specialist who visits Beijing several times a year. "It's like any big city. I think that when athletes get off the plane they're going to be really paranoid, because it has been really bad."
One nation has already taken a stand against the smog. Athletics Australia recently ignited a firestorm when it announced it was banning its track and field competitors from marching at the opening ceremony of the games due to concerns about Beijing's air quality. Instead, the team will remain in training camps in Japan and Hong Kong until their competitions. But are these legitimate worries or overcautious measures? Lanier, who holds an academic appointment at Peking Union Medical College in Beijing, says the city's air-quality conditions during the past few years in the city have gone from "terrible" to "not so bad." He says in terms of air quality, there are worse places to hold such an event that are closer to home. "If you had the choice of holding the Olympics in L.A. or Beijing, I'd probably choose Beijing," he says. Nonetheless, China remains notorious for polluted air. The World Bank has cited China as having 16 of the 20 most air-polluted cities on Earth. The European Space Agency, utilizing satellite imagery, has found that Beijing and its surrounding areas have the world's highest levels of nitrogen dioxide, a substance poisonous to the lungs.
Beijing's Efforts to Improve the Air
Beijing Olympic officials have taken steps to try to improve air quality during the games: traffic will be very limited and construction will halt. Still, Alfred Munzer, MD, director of pulmonary medicine at Washington Adventist Hospital and former president of the American Lung Association, says that shutting down factories and enforcing driving bans won't eliminate what's already in the air. "During exercise, the movement of air in the lungs goes up about tenfold, which means exposure to air pollution goes up tenfold," Munzer says. "This has a severe affect on the respiratory tract. It will have an effect on healthy athletes." Scheduling may help some Olympic athletes. The coolest time of the morning offers the most ideal conditions for competition, followed by early evening once the sun sets. Unfortunately, there's little else athletes -- or even spectators -- can do to prevent exposure to air pollution.