Marathon legend slams Beijing's pollution woes

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

Gebrselassie confirms he will pull out of games if air is too bad

The world's greatest long distance runner Haile Gebrselassie yesterday said he would pull out of the 2008 Olympic Games on the starting line if he is not convinced the air is safe enough.

But he saved most of his sympathy for the citizens of the host city.

'They are really suffering [from the pollution],' the serial-record breaker and world's fastest man over 42 kilometres said yesterday. Gebrselassie was part of a small galaxy of athletic stars attending an exhibition at the Beijing Sports University.

He defied his sponsor's PR minders and held several impromptu interviews to voice his health anxieties and concerns for the wellbeing of Chinese. He told the SCMP China should focus more on the environment than the Olympics.

'Imagine what is happening in other parts of China. All the new buildings and factories and cars look luxurious but [the manufacturing boom that makes them] is bad for living. People need, at a minimum, enough air,' he said before being ordered away from the media by a minder. Even during his official media slot, Gebrselassie was unwavering in his criticism of Beijing's air quality.

He described the pledge by games organiser Bocog to take some cars off the roads and shut some factories to ensure the 16-day event is held in healthier conditions as 'a good plan' - but he lambasted the measures for being ineffective and short term.

'It's not long enough. What about the [health of the] Chinese people who have to live here all the time, not just for the Olympics?,' said Gebrselassie, who smashed the marathon world record last September with a time of two hours, four minutes, 26 seconds in Berlin.

International Olympic President Jacques Rogges said last year endurance events like the marathon would be rescheduled if Bocog's plans to counter smog failed.

Gebrselassie, who is also wary of the effects of the humidity, said he would attend the Games and hoped to compete but would pull out if he believed conditions were dangerous.

'If the pollution is a serious problem I will not run. The most important thing is my health and my life.'

It's the second time in recent weeks that Gebrselassie, 34, has spoken out about Beijing's pollution and high humidity. Last month he said he would most likely pull out of the marathon and concentrate on the 10,000m. He already has two 10,000m Olympic titles and is favourite for the marathon gold in August. He said: 'It all depends on my 10,000 qualification. But as I said ... the pollution is the most important thing. I will make up my mind to run the marathon in the coming months.'

One of the other stars at yesterday's event, 100m and 200m world record holder, Tyson Gay, said he will set up his own pre-Olympics training camp in Hong Kong.

'I will train there on my own for a couple of weeks before the Olympics. I plan to run in London and then start to get ready to go there,' said the 2007 International Athletics Association Federation Athlete of the Year.

He said he was 'not bothering' too much about the pollution in Beijing.

Though Hong Kong can offer athletes some pollution exposure, it's the SAR's humidity that lures the 25-year-old American 200m world champion. He said: 'Everybody has to run in the same conditions. Whatever the weather conditions, I'm going to prepare myself and try and go out and get the gold medal.'