Upset … heptathlete Kylie Wheeler.BEIJING Olympic authorities are shocked and dismayed at Athletics Australia’s decision to ban track and field competitors from marching at the opening ceremony, partly because of fears that the city’s pollution will harm their health and performance.
It is the first pollution-related boycott, and the decision has upset some of the Australian athletes who will miss the ceremony on August 8, instead remaining in training camps in Japan and Hong Kong until ready to compete.
“Wow, you’re kidding,” said the spokesman for the Beijing Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, Jeff Ruffolo, on hearing the news yesterday from the Herald. “That’s the first time we’ve heard anything about athletes themselves pulling out of the opening ceremony.”
Beijing is one of the world’s most polluted cities, but it is introducing drastic anti-pollution measures, and it believes it is being unfairly singled out compared with previous host cities.
“For example, in Los Angeles in 1984, when conditions were considerably worse,” Mr Ruffolo said. “The smog was impenetrable, but the Games turned out sparklingly – because people left the city.”
Athletics Australia’s national performance manager, Max Binnington, said yesterday that pollution was a problem, and while he understood some athletes were upset, he had to ensure they performed at their peak.
“We have had athletes come back from a recent test event and one athlete has got 10 days off training because of a respiratory problem,” he told ABC radio. “We don’t want our athletes to be undertaking that sort of risk.”
But last night Mr Binnington – clearly fearing a diplomatic fallout – backtracked and told the Herald it was not about pollution but ensuring the team had a stable training environment.
“Never was it intended to be a criticism of China, the Chinese Government or the Beijing Olympic Committee,” he said. “We think they will put on a wonderful show and they will do anything to minimise the inconenience for athletes. We wouldn’t be going to Hong Kong if we thought there was something wrong with China, and this isn’t the first time we’ve gone in late.”
Sensitivity on the subject is so acute in China that news photographers have recently refused to work on polluted days for fear of official retribution. Hosting a successful Olympics is a top national priority, and China’s leaders will be anxious to avoid an environmental boycott of the ceremony on top of the Tibet-related political boycotts that some world leaders have already threatened.
The Australian heptathlete Kylie Wheeler told the Herald she was unhappy about not marching in the ceremony at her second Olympics. Athletics Australia had told athletes that part of the reason was the pollution, she said.
“At the same time, I understand where they are coming from. Ultimately they want us to give our best performance, and they think this is the best thing to do. But it would have been nice to come to some intermediary solution. For me, after having been to one, I know the motivation and excitement it generates. For me it’s really important for my preparation; I get excited about it, and from that I get really motivated.”
The track and field athletes will trickle in to Beijing from August 9, the day after the ceremony, but many will wait until closer to their events, starting on August 15.
In preparation, heavy industry has been all but cleared out of Beijing. The Government has introduced tough energy intensity goals and European vehicle-emissions standards, and it is phasing out what used to be ubiquitous coal burners and boilers. Its count of “blue sky days” has risen from 100 a year a decade ago to 246 last year, although the index is perhaps misleadingly named, and critics say some monitoring stations were shifted from high-traffic spots two years ago.
“The trend is definitely getting better and this year is definitely the best,” said Changhua Wu, China director for an international non-profit consultancy, The Climate Group.