Fearful of the effects of air pollution on their performance, Olympic athletes are taking extreme measures to prepare for this summer's Games in Beijing.
Delegations from dozens of nations are setting up training bases in nearby countries and planning to fly into China at the last minute to minimize exposure to what they say is a hostile environment.
Situated in a basin where smoke from factories and construction and dust from desert storms gather and shroud the city for days, Beijing has struggled to control air pollution for several years.
Recent measurements show that on some days the amount of smoke and dust particles in the air exceeds by three to 12 times the maximum deemed safe by the World Health Organization.
"The magnitude of the pollution in Beijing is not something we know how to deal with. It's a foreign environment. It's like feeding an athlete poison," said David Martin, a respiratory expert who is helping train U.S. marathoners.
In November, [Frank Filiberto, a physician for the U.S. boxing team] accompanied 11 boxers to the Chinese capital for a competition. On their first morning there, Filiberto said, the men returned from their daily 20-minute training run complaining of burning eyes, coughing, congestion and breathing difficulties. Only six of the 11 boxers ended up feeling well enough to compete.
"In my opinion boxers are probably the finest athletes in the world," Filiberto said. "But they didn't think they could make it three rounds in Beijing." Filiberto and the coaches were so alarmed that they ordered the boxers to jog only in hotel hallways thereafter.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, a Boulder, Colo., bicyclist who competed in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and is a contender for a spot on this year's U.S. mountain biking team, said that when he arrived in the Chinese capital, the sky was a crystal-clear blue and he thought that concerns about pollution had been overblown. But on the day he was to race, he said, the smog was so thick "you could barely see a few city blocks" from his hotel window.
About 20 minutes into the race, Horgan-Kobelski started having trouble breathing.
"I struggled with it for a while," he said in a phone interview. "You're breathing as hard as you can but you feel like your muscles don't want to work. You're filling your lungs but you don't know what's going in there."
About halfway through the roughly 30-mile race, Horgan-Kobelski said, "my body sort of shut down." He pulled over and vomited.
It wasn't until he got to the athletes' lounge that he learned that he wasn't unique. Only eight of 47 contestants in the men's race finished; the others, including the Chinese riders, also suffered from breathing problems and dropped out.
Haile Gebreselassie, who has won two gold medals in the 10,000 meters and holds the world record in the marathon, may not run in the Olympic marathon. In an interview with the Associated Press, the runner's manager, Jos Hermens, said: "What he says is: 'Great if I win, but if it means the end of my career, then I really don't feel like it.'"
Given that, what criteria, exactly, do the International Olympic Committee consider when they spend years travelling the world to decide which cities should host the Olympics? Think of all the fuss over the London bid — not just the successful 2012 bid, but the numerous unsuccessful ones in previous years. Think of the amounts of money involved. Make even just a rough guess at how much gets spent on entertaining, showing off to, and generally pampering the IOC. Their decisions cost billions.
Yet we now discover that at no point do they take into account the question of whether a venue is suitable for athletes.