Cement dust threatens British hope at Olympics

As the most meticulous of planners, Paula Radcliffe, Britain's brightest Olympic gold medal hope, will have taken all necessary precautions to deal with the searing heat of Athens.

As the most meticulous of planners, Paula Radcliffe, Britain's brightest Olympic gold medal hope, will have taken all necessary precautions to deal with the searing heat of Athens.

What she and fellow marathon runners may not have considered is the choking presence of cement dust. According to British officials, the effect of daytime temperatures which can rise in August to 40C for several days running, will be as nothing compared to the hazard posed to participants if the wind gets up.

Mike Whittingham, performance director for UK Sport, the Lottery-funded body which helps groom athletes, said: "The athletes have prepared for the heat but with the building work going on until the last minute, there will be a lot of cement dust in the air. If the wind blows on the day of the marathon, there will be a lot of people very upset."

Dust in the air on the day of the race on 22 August is likely to be of particular concern to Radcliffe, the current women's marathon world record holder and widely tipped for gold, since she was diagnosed as an asthmatic at the age of 14.

It could also be an embarrassment to the organisers who have won plaudits for their last-minute completion of venues and transport and have set great store by their Olympic tradition and as hosts of the first modern Games in 1896.

This Olympic pedigree is typified by the marathon which runs along the original 26.2-mile route from Marathon to the stunning Panathinaiko Stadium rebuilt in 1896, although its ruins date back to 300BC.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Public Works said: "There is not much we can say about this. Dust is everywhere and has always been a problem."

Initial concerns about air quality for the athletes had centred on the thick cloud which is known locally as "nefos". The clouds have been the subject of campaigns by environmental groups and at the time of bidding for the Games, city officials acknowledged they could be a cause for concern. Traffic reduction plans such as alternate driving days and staggered peak driving hours are thought to have eased the problem.

Yesterday Team GB boss Simon Clegg said Britain's Olympic hopefuls resemble a "wound-up spring" waiting to be unleashed.

"We're very, very keen to get the opening ceremony behind us and get on with it," Mr Clegg said. "We're here to perform and that's where the focus is."

The British team turned out in force at a sun-drenched Olympic Village to receive an official welcome from organisers to what will be their home from home for the next two-and-a-half weeks.

And with the bulk of athletes to compete in Athens now staying in the village, the British contingent was easily the largest represented at the flag-raising ceremony which also involved teams from Zimbabwe, Thailand and the Syrian Islands.

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