Like Hong Kong, Beijing’s skies today were remarkably clear, or clearer than normal at least. More often they’re like what Jerry Guo, an intern at TIME in Beijing, experienced on a recent trip to the Beijing National Stadium. Here’s his report:
Last Friday should have been a nice breezy, even sunny day. But since it’s Beijing, the dust from rampant construction blew in our eyes and the sun was a ominous red orb hidden beyond the smog. We were at the Beijing National Stadium, colloquially known as the “bird’s nest,” to take a tour of the venue where the opening ceremony and track & field competitions will be held for the 2008 Olympics. The “tour”, which needed two weeks to be approved, was unlike any other tours around town. We were led by several guides with the obligatory umbrellas. We followed them to a “viewing platform” a few feet off the ground–and half a kilometer from the $400 million stadium. At least the stadium lived up to its nickname, as well as the neighboring aquatic center, known affectionately as the “water cube.” But there was only so much to see, and you couldn’t see it anyways from the smog.
The smog won’t just be a nuisance for Western tourists during the Olympics–it could be dangerous to the 10,000+ athletes, or at least muck up the chances for some world records. “I wouldn’t expect a world record in the marathon in Beijing,” a doctor with the British Olympic Committee told German magazine Spiegel. “The issue isn’t just air quality, but the combination of heat, humidity and bad air.” The problem becomes especially apparent for endurance athletes in sports such as cycling, for which competitors can inhale 150 liters of air per minute–10 times what a Beijing office worker would consume.
Smog has already reared its head in past Olympics like Mexico City and Los Angeles. At the last Olympics in Athens, 20% of U.S. athletes had trouble breathing through the smog. Since it’s so late in the game, with the opening ceremony a year from the 8th, one fix is just to move some of the strenuous outdoor events to coastal cities with less smog, such as Qingdao (where the sailing competitions are already held) and Hong Kong (equestrian). To their credit, the Beijing government is doing as much as it can – with plans to take 1 million cars off the road for two weeks this August as a trial for next year. Though that still leaves 2 million cars on the road, roughly the equivalent to Manhattan’s traffic load. For now, locals are the ones paying the cost–a World Bank report last month suggested perhaps 750,000 people die prematurely each year from the pollution, a figure the Chinese government removed from the report. But come next August, revelers will no doubt see plenty of green trees, blue skies (think rain-busting cannons), and umbrella-toting tour guides.