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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

News
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm it was a 'minor disturbance' and no-one was arrested

News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Concerns raised phenomenon is threatening resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
gaming

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

News
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shia LaBeouf plays a World War II soldier in forthcoming drama Fury
films

Eccentric Fury star, 28, reveals he is 'not a really confident actor'

Life and Style
Time and Oak have developed a product that allows drinkers to customise the flavour and improve the quality of cheaper whiskey
food + drink

Sport
football

Peter Biaksangzuala died from his injuries in hospital on Sunday

Life and Style
The final 12 acts will be facing Simon Cowell, Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, Mel B and Louis Walsh tonight
fashion

The X Factor's judges colourful outfit was mocked by Simon Cowell

News
news

Footage shot by a passerby shows moment an ill man was carried out of his burning home

News
people
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

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

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past