‘Green Games’ look more like ‘Grey Games’ so far

August 7, 2008

Tourists walk along the Great Wall on a hazy day in Juyongguan, as the opening day of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games approaches, August 4, 2008. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (CHINA)It was a bright sunny morning with hardly a cloud in the sky as our plane from Europe sped across Northwest China.  The skies were blue and the  visibility so great from 10,000 metres up that you could spot houses, huts, trails and even fences on the desert ground below.
But about 30 minutes before landing in Beijing, the earth gradually disappeared beneath a thickening blanket of greenish-yellowish-brownish haze. Clouds? Smog? Who can say for sure?
It reminded me of the unnatural colours of the smog that used to plague Los Angeles decades ago before catalytic converters became mandatory equipment on cars and California authorities took other tough steps to tackle the air pollution problem.

And these are supposed to be the “Green Games”? If Beijing is unlucky, they may be remembered as the “Grey Games” instead.
“It used to be a lot worse here,” a flight attendant tells me helpfully after we land in Beijing, a city that only became visible through the haze about 5 minutes before we touched down. “Ten or 12 years ago the tissue would turn black if you coughed or sneezed into one. It’s much better now.”
  The sun is seen through haze near the National Stadium, also known as the ‘Bird’s Nest’, ahead of Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, August 4, 2008. REUTERS/Joe Chan (CHINA)
That was encouraging. Sort of. Yet it is still a shock when you step outside the splendid airport terminal and take your first breath of Beijing air.

It’s a strange if faint smell of something burning that fills your nose and senses. You’re not sure you want to open your mouth let alone take a deep breath. It’s not so bad that you feel a need to strap on a gas mask. But it’s bad enough to make you wonder — can this possibly be healthy for people who live here? How is anyone going to run a marathon here?
And is this a glimpse of the world’s future? Will the whole planet look and smell like this after another 100 years of burning fossil fuels?
(( Erik Kirschbaum, a self-confessed fresh-air fanatic, is a Reuters correspondent based in Berlin on assignment in Beijing.))

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