The official word from the Chinese government is that the air quality in Beijing has improved for nine consecutive years. Haile Gebrselassie, the world's fastest marathoner, is not convinced.
On Sunday, Mr. Gebrselassie announced that he would not run the marathon at this summer's Olympic Games. "The pollution in China is a threat to my health," he said. His current plan is to run in the 10,000 meter race instead, since that event would require him to gulp Beijing's air for only twenty six minutes, give or take, rather than the two hours and change the marathon requires of the world's best competitors. Haile Gebrselassie's announcement gives a face to one of the concerns that has been hanging over these Games ever since 2001, when China won the right to host them. According to a recent report from Human Rights Without Frontiers International, the sixteen most polluted cities in the world are in China, where three quarters of a million people die each year of breathing-related illnesses. The International Olympic Committee has warned that it will postpone or cancel endurance events if conditions pose a danger to the health of the athletes. This leads to some intriguing questions: What constitutes an "endurance event?" Does a soccer game qualify? How about a five set tennis match? Both last a lot longer than the ten thousand meter race. And what does "athletes' health" mean? All Olympic athletes aren't equally healthy. Haile Gebrselassie suffers from asthma. According to the Times of London, so do twenty five percent of Britain's top athletes, including marathoner Paula Radcliffe. And how bad will the air quality in Beijing have to be for the International Olympic Committee to begin shutting down events? Will competitors in the one hundred meter dash have to be unable to see the finish line from the start? The Olympic Games have never been free of politics. But it's one thing for a nation that imprisons people illegally and sells arms to accuse another country of doing that. It's another matter when the abuse du jour constitutes a danger to the planet as a whole. If Haile Gebrselassie's decision and some number of other athletes deciding not to compete or to wear surgical masks when they do so further publicizes that threat, the 2008 Games may be remembered as significant in ways that transcend bragging rights and the medal count.