Taking the Sting Out of Beijing’s Air

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A Beijing newspaper reported Wednesday what has long been expected, that there will be serious restrictions on vehicles during the Olympics in August. While the details weren’t released, it’s likely they will follow the pattern from a trial run last year, when passenger vehicles were limited to alternating days—odd numbered license plates could drive on odd numbered dates, even on even. While the plan should make getting around Beijing much easier (unless you are trying to catch a cab at rush hour), the significance of its impact on air pollution is an open question. During the four-day trial last August, air quality was close to the “moderately polluted” level, as defined by China’s air pollution index. Now that some juicing of the city’s air pollution stats has been exposed, it’s questionable whether the trial reached even the moderate levels of success claimed.

Of course, that test was only for four days. Restricting cars for a longer period would clearly have a greater benefit. But there are other factors beyond vehicles. One study by a group of Chinese and American researchers found that even if all man-made emissions in Beijing were eliminated, there could still be a problem with toxic air at Olympic sites due to regional pollution sources.

Olympic teams aren’t taking any chances. The New York Times reports that the U.S. Olympic team is experimenting with masks to reduce the amount of pollutants athletes inhale before competition. The paper quotes a U.S. Olympic Committee physiologist as saying the filters won’t be used in competition when they would undoubtedly cause an uproar. It’s what you breathe beforehand that matters most, the physiologist adds.

Should these measures fail, let me propose an alternative. Baijiu, the powerful Chinese liquor, will be among the drinks offered to athletes, the Beijing Daily reported (via Reuters.) While the sorghum-based firewater will certainly not improve marathon times (or the speed with which one does anything, except possibly fall to the ground), it can help drown the sorrows of any athlete who falls short. If you can’t stop the burning in your throat, you might as well embrace it.