Olympic athletes are still facing serious health risks in Beijing, despite Chinese authorities spending $16bn on reducing pollution for the forthcoming games, according to Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at Kings College London.
The UN has already reported that pollution levels are more than three times higher than the World Health Organisation’s safe limits, and are unlikely to fall much before the games begin.
“Athletes breathe in ten times as much air into their lungs as spectators,” explained Professor Kelly. “They are pushing their bodies to their limits, so pollution will have serious consequences.”
The Chinese authorities took time out from their busy schedule of rounding up dissidents and putting restrictions on journalists to say they were stepping up last-minute measures to improve air quality in their smog-blanketed capital.
“The people of Beijing are eager to make the games a success,” said President Hu Jintao, “And they have all volunteered to breathe in deeply just before the opening ceremony, and hold their breath until after the games have finished and everyone has gone home.”
Sceptical International Olympic Committee chiefs have been busy making contingency plans. New events have been added to the roster - including the 200m marathon, spitball, the 25m sprint to the lavatory, hurling, the deca-Savlon and throwing the breakfast. Swimmers may be allowed to wear aqualungs, as indeed may all the other competitors.
Some athletes have spoken out, saying that the debilitating effects of pollution mean they will not be fit enough to break any records. They were immediately arrested by the Chinese authorities, put on trial for five minutes and hauled off to labour camps.
In a separate development, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has pulled out of the competition, citing a nerve problem.
“I haven’t got the nerve to go to Beijing and risk breathing the lethal cocktail of toxins that passes for air there,” she told reporters.