Changing China

Giant on the move

Breathless in Beijing — an athletic has-been tries the air

By Sean Maguire
August 10, 2008

weather graphicThe long-distance cyclists said it was dreadful, the marathon runners live in fear of it and the tennis players want extra breaks to help them withstand its effects.

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.


are you a British?

i know London city once hold two times Olympic Games but that is in the past.One is in 190?, another is 194? i can not remember the exactly time.

but i can undoubtly make sure at that time the air in London could be worse than that in Beijing now.

this is first time Beijing hold Olympic Games and we have do better than you in the first time.what else do you still want to say?

do you always want every Olympic games hold in London or New YORK?
That is impossible:)

if you really want to say some things otherwise you feel unconfortble,please say we most is friendly and we are trying do our best to tackle some problems including you.

Posted by Peter | Report as abusive

What do you expect of a country that has coal fired electricity plants and factories, no car emmissions standards and almost NO POLLUTION REGULATIONS? It will be a wonder if all the outdoor atheletes don’t get respritory infections.

Posted by Neal | Report as abusive

undoubtedly, the article over-exaggerated the fact. Beijing’s air may not be as fresh as some international cities, but it isn’t that worse as you mentioned.

Posted by jenny | Report as abusive

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