By Diane Porter

They could all be fine.

Or they could suffer allergic reactions, coughs, asthma attacks, respiratory infections, oxygen debt and cramps. Their performances could slip,

Photo: Frank Wechsel /
Jason Shoemaker competes at the 2007 BG Triathlon World Cup

their chances for world records could suffer. And predicting medal winners could prove more difficult than usual, since the secret weapon may well be the cleanest lungs or the sturdiest respiratory system.

As the 2008 Olympics open in Beijing tonight, questions remain about whether the estimated $20 billion effort the Chinese have made to improve pollution levels will work. Clear skies made on-and-off appearances in the last week, partly in response to rain and partly in response to the measures China has taken, which include closing more than 100 industrial sites and halving the number of cars on the road. But the sky was more often murky, recorded by dozens of webcams and news organizations monitoring pollution levels on a daily basis.

Will there be blue skies, as China has promised and worked for? Or will the world’s endurance athletes have to deal with the effects of ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in their lungs and respiratory systems?

No one really knows for sure. And that makes everyone nervous.

“When we got off the plane, we immediately noticed the pollution,” Spanish cyclist Alejandro Valverde told Bloomberg News. “Because of the conditions of the heat, humidity and pollution, it is going to be very demanding.” When several members of the U.S. cycling team arrived at the Beijing Capital Airport Tuesday, they wore black breathing masks across their noses and mouths. They didn’t expect the reaction the masks ended up causing, and Wednesday apologized to Olympics organizers for any offense. U.S. officials, however, said wearing the masks would continue to be each athlete’s prerogative.

Photo: Olympic Committee
Arne Ljungqvist, Olympic Medical Chairman

The International Olympic Committee’s medical commission chairman, Arne Ljungqvist, said this week that pollution levels are not as dangerous as the media has reported.

“I’m confident the air quality will not prove to pose major problems to the athletes and to the visitors in Beijing,” Ljungqvist said. Should the pollution levels be too high on any given day, however, the International Olympic Committee has said it could reschedule events.

What is certain is that outdoor athletes, especially those taking part in events that last for longer periods of time, will be breathing in air that at times exceeds the levels the World Health Organization (WHO) deems safe. How their lungs and muscles respond to the contents of that air is everything.

“I think the biggest impact on the athletes is going to be impaired performances, primarily for those who are endurance athletes, who are relying on their incredible lung capacity, their efficiency and their ability to take in oxygen,” said Dr. John M. Balbus, Chief Health Scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. “Most of these pollutants – all in slightly different ways – will diminish their performance,” he said.

While carbon monoxide and particulate matter affects people fairly consistently, ozone is a different matter, Balbus said. “With ozone there are big differences in susceptibility within the population.

“Ozone could be somewhat of a spoiler. Ozone creates oxidated damage, and people differ genetically in the ability to detoxify toxic oxygen,” Balbus said.

The science behind peak performance helps explain the difference between a regular person – even an active one – and an Olympian.

“It’s sort of a twofold thing, why endurance athletes and elite athletes are as good as they are, and what it really comes down to is that the training that they’ve done has resulted in better efficiency of how their lungs and their muscles work together,” said Dr. Albert J. Polito, director of The Lung Center at Mercy and chief of the Division of Pulmonary Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

It’s Primarily Pulmonary

Take the lungs first.

“Probably the best measure we have of athletic performance from a physiological standpoint is the VO2 max, which is the maximum oxygen consumption by the body that you can attain. When you measure this in someone who’s an elite athlete, it’s very, very high,” Polito said. “Their lungs and how their body utilizes the oxygen they pull in is dramatically different. The rest of us have a very low V02 max. We’re not able to have the same level of oxygen consumption.”

Every molecule of oxygen that that athlete consumes affects how his or her muscles work. Replace some of those molecules with carbon monoxide, ozone or particulate matter and you’ve decreased the amount of material the athlete’s body has to work with.

“Carbon monoxide can displace the oxygen in the atmosphere,” Polito said. “Breathing that in can bind carbon monoxide molecules to our red blood cells where oxygen normally binds and hinder your oxygen consumption and your performance.”

And that, in turn, hinders how the muscles work, which is the second part of the equation.

“So much has been written about Lance Armstrong and his Tour de France wins,” Polito said. “There’s some thought that he really trained his muscles in such a way that they very efficiently used oxygen. (An elite athlete) can get that much more strength and endurance from every molecule of oxygen that you take in.”

In understanding the effects of smog on an athlete’s lungs, it helps to understand how the lungs work normally. Picture your lungs in the shape of an upside down tree. When oxygen enters the nose or mouth and travels through the trachea, larynx and bronchi, it is like water following the main trunk of a tree. The oxygen then gets routed into the lungs and into a system of narrower and narrower bronchioles, similar to a tree’s branches, and finally reaches the tiny alveoli, which are as prolific in your lungs as leaves are on a healthy tree. That’s where the exchange of gases takes place, where healthy lungs expel carbon dioxide and send fresh oxygen into the bloodstream to circulate throughout the body.

How Pollution Plays Saboteur

A healthy molecule of oxygen has two oxygen atoms. When ultraviolet light from the sun splits such a molecule, it becomes two single, free-agent atoms. Should one of those single atoms collide with another intact oxygen

Photo: Oldlens Wang/dreamstime
Beijing Industry

molecule, the resulting three-atom molecule is ozone. There are differences between “good,” naturally occurring ozone in the highest levels of our atmosphere, which protects the earth, and “bad,” man-made ozone in the lower layers we inhabit. The latter is produced most often by vehicle exhaust and industrial emissions, and is concentrated in the heat of the day. Ozone at high enough levels in the lungs has a direct effect on the body’s performance and efficiency.

In an interview almost eight months before the Olympics were set to open the 2008 Games, George Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at NYU School of Medicine, told the New York Times that the body reacts immediately to pollution.

“Your body says, ‘This air is bad; breathe less of it,’ and that’s a defensive mechanism,” Thurston said. “For athletes, that means they will go into oxygen debt sooner and will start cramping up. At an event like the Olympics, that could be disastrous,” Thurston said.

Oxygen debt happens when a person needs more oxygen than he or she is taking in. If it goes on for any length of time, the body becomes anaerobic, lactic acid builds up, muscles cramp and severe fatigue sets in, causing the athlete to need to stop and recover until the oxygen levels have caught up with the body’s needs.

The other primary concern of those watching smog levels in Beijing is that of particulate matter – tiny particles of dust, sand, dirt, mold, pollen, metals and organic compounds that are suspended in the air. Particulate matter counts there have sometimes been as high as five times what is considered safe.

“Particulate matter is actually breathed in, and the particles deposit on the lungs and can actually pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream,” Thurston said. “Both (ozone and particulate matter) can cause acute reactions in people exposed to them.”

“Particulates affect not so much the oxygen, but how our bronchial tubes, our airways react,” Polito said. “The typical example would be an asthmatic. Asthma is a situation in which you are reacting to your environment, your airways tighten up, the bronchi restrict in response to what they get exposed to.”

Four-time Olympian British archer Alison Williamson, who won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Games, told BBC Radio Wednesday that the situation worries her.

“I suffer from asthma, and I’m having to take supplements to protect my lung lining,” she said. “Our competition lasts 6-8 hours a day for a whole week, so the build-up could have a bearing.”

Hoping For Gold, Praying For Blue

However, Polito said, “even people who are not asthmatic can find themselves with some reaction. We may have people who have never had trouble before, but they have been training and living in places that are much cleaner.”

American triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker has trained and competed in Beijing the last three years. He told NPR that the effect of the smog was noticeable.

“You can really feel the particulate stuff getting into your lungs,” Shoemaker said. “After the race, when we tried to talk or laugh or cough, it was pretty tough. You could feel it in your lungs. There was a burning…”

Are there long-term risks? Probably not for most athletes, who are doing much of their pre-Olympics training at camps set outside Beijing – the U.S. track team, for instance, is working out at Dalian University, a campus in a resort town about 300 miles away – and who will be exposed to the higher levels of pollution for relatively short times. Many will compete in indoor events only. Those who develop sore throats, coughs or respiratory infections have the immediate care of team doctors available.

Triathletes, rowers, cyclists and runners will spend the most time outdoors. Many of the shorter races – sprints, for instance – schedule heats over several days, which adds a cumulative effect to the amount of exposure athletes face. Beijing’s summer heat and humidity are widely acknowledged as being rugged opponents in themselves. And the men’s marathon is scheduled for the last day of the Games, making any possible rescheduling more difficult. There has been some discussion that if conditions were dangerous on that last day, the marathon could be moved to another city.

The world record holder in the men’s marathon, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, suffers from exercise-induced asthma and withdrew in February from participating in the marathon because he felt the conditions might damage his health. He will run in shorter events. Portuguese cyclist Sergio Paulinho, who won a silver medal in Athens, withdrew Tuesday due to a respiratory problem that could worsen in Beijing. All of the Australian Olympic athletes have been given permission to withdraw from any event if they feel their health would be compromised by participating. And on Wednesday, an Oregon company said they shipped three hand-held air monitors to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing so U.S. diplomats can check air quality themselves.

Tuesday, the pollution index in Beijing was between 90 and 110; the city considers any reading under 100 to be a “blue sky day.” By Wednesday, readings were cooperating with the city’s efforts, and had fallen even farther. On Thursday, however, a BBC reading estimated particulate matter at being 191 micrograms per cubic meter, more than three times what the WHO considers safe.

The first outdoor events begin Friday, with archery, badminton, beach volleyball, cycling, equestrian, rowing, sailing, shooting, soccer and volleyball competitions. Track and field events begin on Aug. 15, a week after opening ceremonies. They end on the 24th with the men’s marathon, not long before the closing ceremonies.

Every Olympics has its challenges, said scientist Balbus, recalling smog worries in Los Angeles in 1984, traffic concerns in Atlanta in 1996 and security issues in Athens in 2004.

“Every Olympics site has its particular characteristics, and with Beijing, air quality is a factor,” he said. “Altitude was a factor in Mexico City. Elite athletes need every last edge on their side to do their best, and this is the issue for this Olympics.”

Baltimore pulmonologist Polito believes it may be harder this year to predict which athletes will take home the gold medals. It’s never rare to see Olympians finish within hundredths of a second of one another, despite different backgrounds, coaches, training regimens and equipment. But this year, picking out the athletes with the biggest advantages will be impossible: An athlete’s respiratory hardiness isn’t obvious at the starting line.

“We will not see as many world records, certainly in the outdoor endurance events. And we may see a bit of variability in terms of who is expected to win, because health is such an unpredictable factor. Exposure to pollutants and what that does to our bodies and our lungs and how we react is very different from individual to individual.,” he said.

“It will be very interesting to see how this plays out,” Polito said. “I know Beijing has done a lot, and you have to give them credit for trying to make some progress in this regard. You hope that it’s going to be a long-lived thing, not just for the Olympics.”

Copyright © 2008 | Distributed by Noofangle Media