The Smoking Torch

Surviving Beijing’s air may be an Olympian feat.

By Clara MoskowitzDec 12, 2007 6:00 AM


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While China works to present itself for the Olympics next year, its majesty might be obscured, both literally and figuratively, by pollution. The air quality at the 2008 games threatens to be worse than at any previous Olympics, with harsh consequences for both viewers and athletes.

Bad air makes sports not only difficult, but dangerous. Even if an athlete manages to suffer though the pain of inhaling smog during a competition in order to perform well, the very exertion may cause lasting harm to her body.

Beijing’s air is full of pollutants like sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and notably, particulate matter (microscopic particles like those in engine exhaust). Each of these toxins harms the respiratory system in unique ways, according to Kenneth W. Rundell, director of respiratory research and head of the Human Physiology Laboratory at Pennsylvania’s Marywood University. Breathing in these particles provokes an inflammatory response, he says. The body recognizes foreign invaders and attempts to fight them off by releasing mucus, coughing, and tightening airways to make breathing more difficult.

But lowering air intake means the body gets less oxygen as well as fewer pollutants. In addition, toxins like particulate matter can cross over into the circulatory system. They make it more difficult to deliver oxygen-rich blood to straining muscles by disrupting the dilating of blood vessels and causing blood to clot more easily and clog arteries.

Athletes are particularly vulnerable to these ill effects, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. While exercising, we breathe in 10-20 times more air than we do standing still, Rundell says, which means we also let that many more pollutants into our lungs. To make matters worse, we inhale more deeply when we’re exercising, so the bad stuff gets lodged farther in the lungs, where it’s harder to get out. And while running around exerting ourselves, we usually breathe through our mouths rather than noses, letting the toxins get past our bodies’ built in filters, the mucus in our nasal passages.

The big question is whether the harm done to athletes during the games will be temporary or permanent. Although some experts say it takes longer than the short duration of the Olympics to build up irreversible lung and cardiovascular damage, others think that any extreme exertion in really bad conditions will cause irreparable harm. One expert sports consultant told Runner’s World, “I predict that you will see some of the stars of Beijing take a dive the next year [due to lung damage].”

The US Olympic teams are hard at work devising strategies to deal with the pollution, although they can’t reveal their best secrets for fear of benefiting rival teams, says Randy Wilber, Senior Sport Physiologist for the United States Olympic Committee. “We will be conducting extensive testing of our athletes to evaluate the effect of Beijing’s air pollution on lung function,” he says. “My concern is that an athlete who has perfectly normally functioning lungs here in Colorado Springs [the U.S. Olympic Training Center] will have significant problems in Beijing’s air pollution.”

Prescription anti-asthma medications can help, although the International Olympic Committee requires athletes to prove they have asthma orexercise-induced asthma in order to qualify for a “therapeutic use exemption” on the regularly banned substances. Wilber says that about 27 percent of U.S. Olympic Team athletes have qualified in the past, although he expects that number to increase when they test the athletes in Beijing.

Many Olympians are also planning to live and train in South Korea, he says, which is in a similar time zone to Beijing and has similar heat and humidity conditions, but boasts much less air pollution than the Chinese city. “You don’t want to acclimatize to air pollution, you want to avoid it as much as possible before you compete,” Wilber says.

If things get really bad, the president of the International Olympic Committee has even suggested events could be postponed till fairer weather appears. In the meantime, China is working hard to clean its air, hoping that kind of drastic step won’t be necessary.

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