Beijing should act now to clean capital's foul air

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 February, 2008, 12:00am

When an athlete of the stature of the world's foremost long-distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, speaks, the sporting world pays attention. He said during a visit to Beijing yesterday that the city's poor air quality was hurting its people and that he might have to boycott the Olympic Games for the sake of his health.

Such outspokenness is unexpected from a sports celebrity. Diplomacy is the usual order of the day when an athlete is in town to be feted and carry out promotions. Gebrselassie is no ordinary runner, though, and he has everything to lose if conditions are not as perfect as humanly possible when he takes to the track. As the world-record holder for the marathon, one of the Olympics' top events, he has his reputation - as well as prowess - to defend.

The Games' organising committee, Bocog, the city's leaders and China as a whole have as much to lose, though. If the runner were to withdraw from the Games because of poor air quality, so, too, would many other athletes. The boycott could, in one fell swoop, punch the air out of China's proudest moment.

Officials contend that they have Beijing's infamously bad air pollution under control. They claim that, come the Olympics, traffic bans and clean-up measures will have made conditions ideal for the athletes and spectators. We have no reason to doubt officials' determination to do all they can to ensure the air will be clean by the time the Olympics is held. But as Gebrselassie's comments show, casual visitors to the city find it difficult to believe that a heavily polluted city can suddenly become clean for two weeks.

Rather than adopting tough abatement measures during the Olympics to ensure the air is clean, Beijing should act immediately. The people of the capital - and that of anywhere else for that matter - must have clean air to breathe, for the sake of their health.

With the Olympics little more than six months away, Bocog and Beijing officials should start releasing information now about their plans to improve air quality, to give athletes from all over the world the confidence that they will be able to take part in the Games safely by August.