Just three days to go and an oppressive haze hung over Beijing yesterday as Britain's athletes arrived in the city from their training camp in Macau. Temperatures reached a stifling 35C with the thick smog engulfing the city making it feel even hotter.
Organisers desperately hope the skies will clear by Friday night – midday in Britain – when the 2008 Games open at the Chinese capital's "Bird's Nest" stadium, with an anticipated global television audience of one billion people.
The issue of smog has been a controversial one since Beijing was awarded the Games in July 2001. China has set great store by hosting a successful event and, despite failing to meet pollution-busting targets two years ago, Chinese officials have made constant assurances that the smog will not be a major issue once the Games begin. However, those walking around the main venues yesterday found it hard to imagine that some of the 10,100 athletes would not suffer when competition gets under way.
Gerhard Heiberg, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) executive board member, expects possible rescheduling to be discussed at the IOC's three-day general assembly starting today. "We are most concerned about the athletes," he said. "Yesterday was a wonderful day. [There had been four days of sunshine before yesterday]. Today, is it hazy? Is it pollution? I don't know at this stage."
In temporarily shutting down factories and taking cars off the road, the Chinese government has recognised the extent of the problem. Although there has been some congestion near the main stadium, the route from the airport to the Olympic sites was all but empty in the middle of the day yesterday.
The British Olympic Association's chef de mission Simon Clegg insisted the Beijing smog would have no adverse effect on the Games. "It's not a concern to us," he added. "The expert advice we are getting is that the situation continues to improve and the measures they put in place are still having a positive effect."
Ben Hawes, the British men's hockey captain, said the smog had had not affected his team's training. "It's mainly the heat and humidity," he said. "We have been training in Macau for a couple of weeks, where it was hotter and more humid, so hopefully by the time it comes to the matches we will be used to it."
Games officials said the hazy conditions had returned due to a lack of wind. "We hope it is fine on Friday," said a spokesman, Sun Weide. "That depends not only on human endeavour but on Mother Nature too."
While temperatures are expected to drop in the next few days, humidity will rise and rain is forecast for the end of the week.
There was better environmental news from Qingdao, the coastal city 450 miles south-east of Beijing. A clean-up operation involving 1,400 boats and 10,000 troops has helped to clear huge areas of algae that had threatened to affect thec sailing events. John Dane, an American sailor, said: "Yesterday we didn't see any algae. It's the cleanest day we have had."
Many hoteliers, however, have been disappointed by the lack of foreign visitors. Some hotels have cut their prices by half because of a lack of reservations, with potential visitors apparently put off by visa restrictions and bad publicity about China.