Air pollution forces star to pull out of Olympic marathon

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The Independent Online

One of the world's top long distance runners has said he will not compete in the marathon at the Beijing Olympics because China's air pollution would pose an unacceptable risk to his health and future career.

In a major blow for the Chinese authorities, who have spent vast sums of money trying to tackle Beijing's pollution problem, the world record holder, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, said he still intended to participate in the 10,000 metres but could not run in the 26-mile, 385-yard (42.2km) marathon.

Gebrselassie, 34, who holds the world marathon record and two Olympic titles for the 10,000 metres, suffers from asthma. "The pollution in China is a threat to my health and it would be difficult for me to run 42km," he told Reuters. "But I am not pulling out of the Olympic event in Beijing altogether. I plan to participate in the 10,000-metre event."

The decision by such a high-profile athlete not to participate in an event because of pollution clearly hit a raw nerve with the Chinese authorities who briefly suspended transmissions from BBC World yesterday when the station relayed the story to its domestic listeners.

China has spent more than £8bn on measures to improve air quality in Beijing but has hadlittle tangible success. Factories have been closed or moved and millions of cars have been taken off the city's notoriously congested roads in the past 12 months. But a report by the United Nations in October revealed that there still might not be enough time to clear pollutants for the Games, which begin in August.

Gebrselassie's agent, Jos Hermans, said yesterday that part of the reason behind his client's decision to pull out of the marathon was his determination to improve upon his current world record. Gebrselassie is one of only five men in history to run a marathon in under two hours six minutes and stormed into the record books last year after running the Berlin marathon in just 2 hours, 4 minutes and 26 seconds, 29 seconds faster than the previous world record.

"His dream is to run in 2 hours and 3 minutes and to be the first to do that," said Mr Hermans. "It's more important for him than to win another gold medal."

China's Olympics have been dogged by concerns from athletes over air pollution and from human rights campaigners. Last month, the authorities in Beijing were forced into a frantic public relations damage-limitation exercise after the film director Steven Spielberg stepped down as an artistic adviser to the opening and closing ceremonies in protest at Beijing's support for the Sudanese government and Khartoum's involvement in the Darfur genocide.

Gebrselassie's comments are likely to reignite the debate over whether Beijing, one of the world's most polluted cities, is a suitable venue for the Olympics. Last year, Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, suggested that some endurance events might have to be postponed if pollution was particularly bad. The British Olympics Association, meanwhile, tested pollution masks developed by Brunel University in the summer but has yet to decide whether it will encourage athletes to use them at the Games.

Asthma and athletes

Many athletes who suffer from asthma have won Olympic medals. The condition is no bar to sporting success.

The British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe was diagnosed with asthma at 14 and keeps the condition under control with medication. Paul Scholes, the England footballer, found out he had asthma at the age of 21. But gulping in large volumes of polluted air in Beijing will challenge even the healthiest lungs.

The International Olympic Committee is concerned at the rise in athletes claiming to be asthmatic – from 9 per cent in the 1980s to 21 per cent at the 2000 Olympics. It will insist the correct tests are carried out and the proper forms filled in before granting permission for athletes to use asthma drugs.