Giant on the move
Breathless in Beijing — an athletic has-been tries the air
But how bad is the Beijing air really? Is it miserable beyond endurance for athletes busting their lungs to deliver peak performance? Or are the smog stories a smokescreen, part of the exaggeration attendant on any Olympic Games?
I decided to conduct a completely unscientific test. How would my 44-year-old physique, finely honed by two decades hunched over a laptop writing stories, cope with running around the Olympic venues?
Not very well is the answer, though in my own and Beijing’s defence some of that was due to jetlag. Today was easier, as the temperature had dropped to an acceptable 25 degrees Celsius and a light rain cooled my progress. But yesterday was miserable, with about 8 degrees more heat, high humidity and not a breath of wind to wick away the sweat.
I did about an 8km (5 mile) route, zigzagging through security checkpoints, past the vast media centre and between the bubble-wrap Water Cube swimming pool and the Bird’s Nest stadium. Could I breathe easily? No. Was that because of pollution? Impossible to say.
I’m not an Olympic athlete and was proud enough to trudge round my route in about 40 minutes. That’s more than I would take to do the distance back home in north London, but not disgraceful for someone with my profoundly sedentary lifestyle. My throat didn’t hurt, which is often a telltale sign of air contaminants.
For north Europeans, particularly those used to London’s perennial rain, I think the big problem is the heat. I felt like I was running in a sauna. Sweat showered off me and it took a long, cold bath to cool me down. Pity the marathon runners from Britain and Scandinavia. Put your money on athletes from Asia who are used to such conditions.
And what did I have the energy to notice on my way round the venues?
That China loves pumping out schmaltzy music from public address systems lining the avenue between the stadiums. That I kept interrupting the photographs proud local tourists were taking of themselves in front of the skeletal structure of the Bird’s Nest. And that running with a large plastic-laminated accreditation card around your neck is extremely awkward. If I had tried to leave it behind I’d have been locked out of the Olympic areas.
WEATHER GRAPHIC: Latest four-day forecast and air quality reading for Beijing. Reuters News Graphics Service.