The smog Olympics

Appallingly high levels of pollution in Beijing mean that some of the endurance events in this summer's games may have to be postponed. Clifford Coonan reports

Beijing's Olympic organisers are launching last-ditch measures to clean up the city's air in time for the games in August, amid fears that some endurance events may be postponed if pollution continues to cast its yellow-tinged pall over the city.

While the International Olympic Committee repeatedly says how delighted it is with the efforts the city has made for the games and indeed, the new facilities for the two-week event are among some of the architectural wonders of the world there have been warnings that cycling events and marathon running may have to be postponed if the air quality is not up to scratch by the time the games open on 8 August.

The Olympics are seen here as symbolising China's emergence on to the world stage, and there is huge anticipation growing in this vibrant city of 17 million people. But pollution is a vicious circle when the capital disappears inside a haze of yellow clouds, a mix of coal smoke, particulate matter and ozone, people leave their bicycles at home and opt for an air-conditioned car instead.

The host city has already spent 120 billion yuan (8.4bn) on environmental programmes to combat pollution, and city officials say that more efforts are planned.

They include closing factories and taking 1.3 million of the city's three million cars off the roads for the duration of the games. Some 300,000 cars with high emissions will be taken out of circulation; coal-burning furnaces are being converted to natural gas in the city centre; millions of trees are being planted and dust clouds from building sites kept under control.

Late last year, the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, said: "Despite all these efforts, time may be running out, and the conditions required for the athletes competing in endurance disciplines might not be met 100 per cent on a given day. For this reason, we may have to reschedule some events so that the health of athletes is scrupulously protected." Fearful of the embarrassment postponement or even cancellation of events could cause, the government is pushing ahead with the building of miles of urban rail lines and has cut bus fares to discourage driving. Other steps will include cloud-seeding, where chemical-infused rockets are fired into clouds to induce rain and clear the polluted skies.

The government has introduced tough new fuel standards for cars, which require service stations to supply petrol and diesel equivalent to the Euro IV standard. This will cut emissions of sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain, by 1,840 tons, according to Beijing's Environmental Protection Bureau.

The capital's top five power plants, all coal-fired, which provide a third of Beijing's electricity and thermal energy, have committed to cutting emissions. They include the Huaneng plant, which has installed a nitrogen oxide reduction system to cut emissions of the gas by 75 per cent, or 10,000 tons, a year, while the other main plants will also curb emissions over the coming months.

China has pitched the Olympics as the "Green Games" to showcase the country's efforts to combat pollution and encourage sustainable energy use. However, Beijing is one of the world's dirtiest cities, choked with smog that is often two or three times the maximum allowed for by the World Health Organisation. The World Bank says China is home to 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has issued a report which says Beijing was on course to hold a Green Olympics as it originally promised it would, but warning that air quality remains a problem. The UN's environment wing is particularly worried about the high levels of small particulate matter (PM10), which are sometimes at more than double recommended safe amounts.

Casual tourists visiting during heavily polluted periods complain of sore throats, allergic reactions and asthma, so it is no wonder that marathon runners and cyclists forced to race through the streets are concerned about the air quality. An endurance athlete inhales up to 150 litres of air a minute, about 10 times that of an average office worker.

There was much official celebration at news that the capital had squeaked past its target of 245 "blue-sky days" in 2007 by just one day. In 2006 Beijing had 241 clear-sky days, and local media said 2007's figure of 246 marked a steady improvement for nine straight years, even if many international scientists do not recognise Beijing's standard for a "blue-sky day".

"We anticipated the last 'blue-sky' day more than 10 days ago, but lingering fog and sandstorms frustrated us in the past week," Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, told local media. Crucially, the data recorded only three heavily polluted days last year, in sharp contrast with 13 appallingly smoggy days in 2006, and city officials are setting a more ambitious target of at least 256 days with relatively good air quality in 2008.

The Beijing Olympics will not be the first games where smog is a problem one in five US athletes complained they had problems with smog in Athens, while British runner Steve Ovett collapsed with breathing problems at Los Angeles in 1984, blaming pollution.

During the marathon in St Louis in 1904, only 14 of the 32 competitors finished the course through the city's dirty streets, and one American runner died after inhaling too much dust.

Last year China's government staged a huge experiment where it took one million cars from the streets to see if it reduced pollution. Beijing said it was a success, although residents did not notice much improvement in air quality.

Still, it's a brave bookmaker who would take a bet on a new world record being set during the marathon in Beijing.

Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser