The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is taking a huge gamble with the health of athletes competing in Beijing - and risking its own reputation and finances. It is leaving itself and other Olympic bodies vulnerable to legal action by competitors who experience adverse reactions to the city's notorious pollution.The IOC could face multi-million pound lawsuits from hundreds of affected sportsmen and women, as could the Chinese, British and other national Olympic bodies. The victims might argue that the games' authorities knowingly placed them at risk of health damage and required them to compete in conditions that jeopardised their wellbeing. Even mere prolonged severe eye, nose, throat and lung discomfort might be grounds for legal recourse. In such cases, it could be argued that expecting competitors to suffer choking, burning sensations was an unreasonable expectation by Olympic chiefs. In a worst-case scenario, the IOC and other Olympic authorities could be tied up in legal cases for years and be bankrupted if the courts rule that they acted recklessly by giving the green light to the games in a heavily polluted city. The day before the Olympics opened, pollution levels were nearly four times above the World Health Organisation's recommended safe levels. If the games go ahead under these conditions, some competitors could suffer lung and heart damage from the double whammy of heat and pollution. The danger is particularly great for high-exertion endurance athletes, such as cyclists, rowers and long-distance runners and walkers. In most cases, the adverse reactions are likely to be temporary, but no one can be certain that some athletes will not collapse and that others will not suffer longer-lasting effects that may undermine their post-Olympic performance in follow-on sports meetings scheduled later this year. No, I am not scaremongering. A Beijing marathon last February left 22 athletes hospitalised, two in a critical condition. I hope my fears are misplaced, but on the eve of the Olympics, a BBC monitoring unit found that the level of particulate matter (PM10) in Beijing's air was 191 micrograms per cubic metre. This is nearly four times the World Health Organisation safety target of 50 micrograms per cubic metre. It is this reality that has prompted the Ethiopian world champion long-distance runner, Haile Gebrselassie, to pull out of the marathon. He says pollution levels in the host city are so bad that it would be unsafe for him to compete. Gebrselassie is right. Despite some improvements, the Beijing air is still so toxic on most days that it is doubtful whether athletes can participate safely - let alone fairly - at this month's games. The head of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, has brushed aside pollution fears, praising Beijing's "extraordinary" efforts to improve air quality. He said there was "absolutely no danger" to the health of athletes taking part in events that last less than one hour. But he conceded that if pollution levels got out of hand, events lasting longer than 60 minutes might have to be relocated or deferred. Echoing the bland assurances of the Chinese authorities, Rogge stressed that it was important to distinguish between harmless fog and toxic pollution - implying that much of the cause of low visibility was mere humidity and mist. The distinction is a valid one, but I am not confident that this controversy is a needless fuss about fog. My scepticism seems to be shared by at least two British Olympic journalists who have road-tested the Beijing air this week. Tom Fordyce, a BBC sports correspondent, did a run around Beijing last Monday and reported what happened to him:
My throat has started to feel sore, as if I had a cold coming on ... there's a strange lumpy feeling halfway down my throat ... The metallic taste in my mouth remains ... The haze obscures anything more than 100m away. I've picked a bad day - today the BBC reading registers 292 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic metre (the World Health Organisation target is 50) ... my eyes have started to feel gritty, as if I'd been out all night in a club full of smokers ... The stinging in my throat gets worse ... My lungs feel half their normal size ... At the end I'm coughing like a 20-a-day man.
Tom Fordyce's experience was shared by Guardian journalist Paul Kelso when he took a jog around the Olympic stadium on Tuesday:
It's five years since I smoked a cigarette, but the acrid taste and mild burning at the back of the throat was familiar. By the time I turned for home, having circumnavigated the stadium more slowly than the entire athletes parade will take at Friday's opening ceremony, I was more than ready to stop ... I'm glad I don't have to compete in the Beijing air this month.
If these are the effects on light joggers, imagine what Beijing's usually foul air will do to elite athletes going all-out for a gold medal, vigorously inhaling huge amounts of air for prolonged periods. I suspect they will suffer extreme discomfort at best, and possibly physical collapse and even heart failure at worst. The British Olympic Association spokesperson, Simon Clegg, is unfazed. He has dismissed concerns that the smog in Beijing could impact on the performance of athletes. "It's not a concern to us," Clegg told the Guardian. "The expert advice that we are getting is that the situation continues to improve." He might be right. I hope he is. But what if he is not? Is it fair to play Russian roulette with the health and lives of the world's greatest athletes? And what if it all goes pear-shaped, with competitors being unable to complete their events or collapsing and ending up in hospital? Could some even die? The IOC and its national counterparts had better get their lawyers briefed and their finances beefed up. There are bound to be some competitors who will suffer adverse reactions to Beijing's poor air quality. They are likely to sue and they are likely to win. If they do, it will be a sad day for the Olympic spirit but a wholly self-inflicted wound by misguided Olympic administrators who could have, and should have, anticipated the risk to athlete's health. Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner, and a member of the queer rights group OutRage! and the left wing of the Green party.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008