Is That Hot Air Over Beijing's Bad Air?

We know one thing for sure: the air in Beijing agreed with Michael Phelps and track star Usain Bolt.  23 records — some of them world records, others for individual countries — have been set in cycling and track and field events so far, including Bolt’s 100m time of 9.69 seconds and his 200m time of 19.30 seconds.  

And all of this happened in an atmosphere that made the smog that blanketed Los Angeles in the 1980s seem like a cool clear day in the Rocky Mountains.

Beijing’s air pollution index has reduced drastically during the Olympics, falling from 96 the day before the opening ceremonies to 17 last Friday (50 or below is considered “good”).  Several news organizations have measured the air quality themselves, however, not trusting the figures released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection.  While BBC and AP readings have shown higher pollution than those released by the host country, the variables in each study mean apples could easily have been compared with oranges.

So how big an effect would Beijing’s infamous smog have on athletes’ health?  Were the weeks of pollution panic simply hot air on a slow news day?

“Absolutely, I think the concerns were [legitimate],” said Dr. Richard Covert, medical director of SSM WorkHealth in St. Louis and a member of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Legitimate — but in the wake of Phelps and Bolt, no longer relevant?

It’s not generating much buzz in the medical community, Covert says.  Doctors understand that athletes will experience transient effects from the pollution, and if someone runs a 2:30 instead of a 2:15, “it doesn’t bother the doctors as much as it bothers the athlete.”

And, Covert points out, training for the conditions of the host country is part of an athlete’s preparation. An athlete will adjust his training for competitions held at higher elevations — a factor Covert said would cause him more concern than Beijing’s pollution problems.

“I’d be more concerned about running a similar Olympics in Denver,” he said.

Dr. Stephen Kollias, who played defensive end at Butler University and now practices sports medicine in Indianapolis, Ind., said he did not advise any of the athletes he works with not to go to Beijing.

“If they made a spot on the team, they went,” he said.

Could the U.S. have done anything more to protect the interest of its athletes?  Besides forewarning the host country, Covert said the only thing the U.S. could have done — and which he believes they have — is make sure the athletes who would need medication had the proper waivers and clearance ahead of time.  Certain medicines, including those used to treat asthma, require pre-approval before an athlete can use them during competition.  

“I think the concern was raised appropriately ahead of time,” Covert said. “I think it’s a reflection how people have responded.”

Covert, Kollias, and a prominent sports medicine physician practicing in Washington, D.C. said they do not see American athletes’ long-term health threatened by participation in the Beijing Olympics.  Covert said even athletes without asthma might experience the side effects of Beijing’s poor air quality but such effects would be transitory.

Nor was Covert too worried about medical problems surfacing later, unlike what has happened with people exposed to the pollution during 9/11.

“These people [the athletes] have a cardiovascular system that’s second to none,” he said.  It’s the high-risk groups among the spectators with which Covert is more concerned, and the locals who are getting a breath of fresh air along the way.