Olympic Marathon World Record Athlete Threatens Beijing Air Quality Pull Out
Haile Gebresellassie, asthma sufferer, may not participate
Feb. 11 – The current Olympic World Record holder for the Marathon, Ethiopian long distance runner Haile Gebresellassie stated he may pull out of participating in this summers Beijing Olympics if the air quality remains poor. In Beijing over Chinese New Year as part of an Adidas sponsored event at Beijing Sports University , Gebresellassie deviated from his prepared PR speeches several times to question the air pollution in Beijing and stated that he would not run if he felt air pollution would affect his health.
Marathon running is a strenuous, time consuming sport during which the body must be able to sustain its performance with large intakes of good quality air over a sustained period. Damage could be permanent if air intake is impure, a fact compounded by Gebresellassie’s existing asthmatic condition, an allergy to pollen – which prevented him from taking part in last years London marathon.
Gebresellassie also broke standard Olympic protocol not to ‘politicize’ the Games, by drawing comparisons between China’s rise as a polluting nation and global weather patterns. His statements, which included concerns that the Chinese government was paying too much attention to the event and not enough about the environment, are sure to have raised concerns in Beijing about handling media events, comments by athletes on the air quality conditions during participation in the games, as well as the long discussed problem of Beijing’s air standards generally.
Gebresellassie went even further by making statements concerning the falling of acid and black rain and flooding in Africa, in comments likely to embarrass the IOC , his countries National Olympics Committee and the International Association of Athletics Federations.
His threat should not be taken lightly. It would be seen as a major condemnation of the impact of the Chinese Governments and IOC’s abilities to host an event in clean, healthy conditions at which the worlds top athletes can compete in their prime. It would also be, if carried out, the first iconic protest led by a single athlete concerning the Olympics since the infamous “Black Power” salutes given by U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico in 1968, and is a major shot over the bows for the organizers, bound to raise concerns.
Whether Beijing can do enough to actually provide the quality of air that athletes expect, history will judge. During Gebresellassie’s stay in Beijing, the air quality in the city was considered fair, however August, when the games are to be held, is generally hot, stifling and smoggy. Beijing and the IOC are treading a fine line between dealing with genuine air quality concerns and the abuse of the Olympics as a protest platform, and finesse, patience and a steady hand are going to be needed to defuse what could degenerate into an embarrassing and damaging world games both for China and the IOC hierarchy if air quality issues are not properly dealt with and explained in detail before the event is held.