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18 March 2008

Concern for athletes at Olympics

A study has shown that there may be a risk to athletes competing in this years Olympic Games, despite the IOC's reports that Beijing's air quality is better than expected.

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A study has shown that there may be a risk to athletes competing in outdoor endurance events and conditions may be less than ideal during this summer's Olympic Games. However, the IOC's top medical officer says Beijing's air quality is better than expected.

Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's Medical Commission, said that an analysis of data supplied by Beijing organisers by four independent experts found heat and humidity might pose a greater threat to athletes than the city's noxious air.

IOC President Jacques Rogge has repeatedly said that outdoor endurance events would be postponed if the air quality is poor, which would be a huge embarrassment for organisers hoping to feature a clean, modern city.

The release of the IOC study comes as protests in Tibet against Chinese rule throw a spotlight on Beijing's human rights record, which - like Beijing's pollution - has come in for heavy criticism with the games fewer than five months away.

'No need for face masks'
"In general terms I must say that I am sort of pleased really with the outcome of this analysis," Ljungqvist said. "We find that the competitions, although not necessarily under ideal conditions at every moment ... will be good for athletes to compete during the Beijing Games."

Ljungqvist said the data were gathered between August 8 - 29, 2007, in Beijing, dates that roughly match this year's Olympics - and were supplied after the IOC requested the study.

He said athletes would not need to compete with face masks, which at least one international federation had initially suggested. He said athletes with asthma would not need to take "any particular precautions or actions, but be aware there may arise a problem that can arise in any place on earth."

"The risk is more related to the fact that they may not perform at the best level," Ljungqvist said. "It means we may not see many world records set under unfavourable conditions, but that's not the main purpose of the Olympic Games - to set records."

Air quality being monitored
Ljungqvist said the IOC and the relevant international federations would monitor daily air quality and had a "B" plan if needed. He said the decision to postpone any event would be made by the IOC executive board and IOC coordinating commission.

Though ski races have been postponed at the winter games, he said he did not know of an Olympic event that had been postponed because of pollution. "This to my knowledge is the first time in sports history we are conducting an analysis like the one we have been conducting,"

Ljungqvist said. "Air pollution has not been an issue until this time. But we have been in polluted places earlier without paying attention or making any analysis at all."

He said World Health Organisation guidelines would be used to judge pollution, heat and humidity levels. He said any postponement would be explained openly. WHO has said some pollution levels in the Chinese capital are five times over their safety level.

'Problem is being taken seriously'
"There is no single parameter that would be decisive for the postponement of an event," he said. "There would be a number of factors including concentration of pollutants, wind conditions, heat and humidity and so forth. There is no exact level. ... It will be an evaluation based on numerous pieces of information and we will issue an explanation as to why."

Ljungqvist said he received full cooperation from Beijing authorities and had confidence in their data. He said some Beijing officials "were not so happy" when certain data was requested, fearing some of the findings might not be "ideal."

"There is awareness among Beijing authorities that they have a problem; that air pollution is an issue for the Olympic Games and they are taking it seriously," Ljungqvist said. "I think we are facing a problem that may not have been foreseen at the time when the decision was taken," he said of Beijing's selection seven years ago by the IOC. "But now we are here and we have to cope with it." – (Sapa)

March 2008

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