Breathing in Beijing: Heat, air quality concerns linger

Even with night falling, 90°F temperatures and nearly 90% humidity made Friday’s opening ceremonies in Beijing almost as much of an endurance test for the athletes as some of the events they’ll be taking part over the next two weeks.

Hitting the courts earlier in the week, tennis players reported that the conditions were some of the toughest they’ve ever faced.

But weather itself isn’t the lone concern. For years, experts have pointed to Beijing’s notoriously poor air quality as a potentially significant health risk to the athletes, prompting the Chinese government to spend billions on a clean-up effort ahead of the Games. That’s included ordering 1 million cars off the road from July 20 onwards, shutting down nearby coal-burning plants and suspending construction projects.

Despite these efforts, no one knows exactly what to expect when the Olympic tennis event begins on Saturday. Substantial improvements have been reported, but Friday’s air-quality readings were still below World Health Organization recommendations. It’s difficult to predict whether the pollution will be bad enough to have a noticeable effect on players during matches.

”I don’t know if it was because of the humidity and everything, but it was very warm. That’s always going to make competition tougher,” reported Roger Federer on Thursday, after he had practiced in the stadium the previous day. “Now, I don’t know if I struggled maybe because of the heat or it was because of the pollution. But I don’t think it’s going to play a role in who’s going to win or how you’re going to be able to play. So I’m not scared about it in any way.

Lindsay Davenport, who has played the WTA event at Beijing in the past, recently spoke about her previous experiences competing in the city. “The couple of times I've been there it was September,” she said. “You can see how in the beginning of the day until the end of the day the dirt that kind of piles up on the hard court. All of a sudden you're getting ball marks as the day goes on.

That will represent some challenges for athletes competing outdoors. It was extremely tough to breathe when I've been there in the past. I've heard that they've tried it clean it up. We'll see.”

The Olympic Green Tennis Centre, located on the south side of the N. 5th Ring Road (northern section of the Olympic Green) is potentially at a higher risk for air pollutants from car exhaust than other sports venues.

However, Chris Nielsen, Executive Director of the China Project at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Harvard University Center for the Environment, cautioned that “the degree of risk is simply too hard to predict without knowing the effectiveness of the various traffic restrictions. A bigger concern may be stagnant episodes trapping pollution against the hills and mountains to the west and north of the city."

But, he said, hot conditions will magnify the situation. “API [the air pollution index] is directly affected by heat, which tends to make pollutant concentrations worse, and thus will raise API levels.”

Heat and humidity are common challenges at most outdoor tennis tournaments, but air pollution is not. Beijing's air quality numbers in August are traditionally on the high side (100-150 API for 2007) and can spike even higher on any given day. Throw in temperatures in the high 80s and high humidity, and the air quality can be downright unbearable.

Unlike Beijing, the air quality conditions players usually face at other tournaments during this time of year are more tolerable. The Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles has average daytime temperatures in the mid 80s in August and air quality averages remain in the moderate 51-100 range. In addition, the dry heat eliminates oppressive humidity from the equation.

Players competing in the Legg Mason Classic in Washington, D.C. and the Pilot Pen in New Haven do have humidity to contend with, but the air quality is again tolerable (51-100 range) with temperatures averaging in the 80s.

It is worth noting that an API of 100 is considered "slightly polluted" by Chinese standards while seen as "unhealthy for sensitive groups" in the U.S.

Respiratory problems or even vision problems could pose a serious challenge for players on either side of the court.

In the event that Beijing’s air quality conditions are unfavorable for competition, Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, has announced a backup plan for those events involving outdoor endurance sports. If the air pollution on competition days poses a risk to athletes, those events will be postponed if necessary. Tennis was not mentioned in this plan.

The Beijing Municipal Environmental Protection Bureau’s web site will be providing daily updates during the Olympics using the Air Pollution Index (API). The I.O.C.’s Medical Commission will also be evaluating air quality on a daily and hourly basis during the Olympic Games.

Ironically, the best hope for clean air may in the end be rain—not usually a welcome interruption at tennis events.