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US athletes equipped for Beijing pollution

Aug. 12, 2008, 9:06 a.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Faced with competing in perhaps the most polluted city to ever host the Summer Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee reached deep into its bag of tricks to make sure that Beijing's foul air didn't deflate American medal hopes.

Athletes were sent to train far outside of Beijing - and in some cases outside of China. Respiratory masks specially designed to block out pollutants were created. And hospital-grade air purifiers were installed in living quarters and some training facilities.

"For every games, we prepare for a number of situations that may or may not unfold. Most of those situations don't arise. For these games, one of the contingencies we prepared for was substandard air," said Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Olympic organizers had long promised to clean up polluted skies over the capital in time for the Summer Games. And the conditions in Beijing so far are "safe and suitable for competition," Seibel said.

But the USOC was prepared for the worst.

The committee offered athletes specially designed masks, intended to be worn primarily during leisure periods, not during training or competition; 200 had requested the masks before the start of the games,

In addition, specialized air purifiers that can filter out the tiniest of dust particles and even viruses were placed in the sleeping quarters in the Athletes Village for the nearly 600-strong American contingent ,as well at training facilities at Beijing Normal University. Seibel said air filter systems were first used in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and since then in Sydney and Athens as well.

"I think the benefit is as much psychological as physiological. There's been so much focus on air quality," said Seibel. "For members of our delegation to know we do have contingencies in place provides peace of mind. It's one less thing they need to think about."

Athletes were also flown to Singapore, Korea and Japan to complete training ahead of the Olympics.

China's air quality is acknowledged to be among the worst in the world. But one result of its successful Olympic bid has been a major cleanup campaign of the capital. Some $20 billion was poured into "greening" Beijing, including doubling the number of subway lines, retrofitting factories with cleaner technology, tightening car emission standards and building urban parks.

Still, environmental efforts have often been outpaced by constant construction and increased traffic.

On a typical day, Beijing's air quality can be easily two to three times dirtier than what is considered safe by the World Health Organization. On other days, the level of particulate matter - tiny dust particles that are the city's biggest problem - can reach 10 times that limit. Most of its pollution is the result of factory emissions, car exhaust and construction dust.

In the run-up to the games, Chinese officials imposed drastic measures in mid-July, including pulling half the city's 3.3 million vehicles off the roads, halting most construction and closing dozens of factories.

Despite these efforts, many athletes arrived in early August to a solid wall of thick haze that covered the city. According to Beijing's statistics, air pollution levels since Aug. 1 have remained within China's standards of acceptable air, which allows for moderate pollution. The International Olympic Committee also reassured athletes that the persistent haze was not a health concern.

Downpours over the weekend helped clear the air the last couple days, with Tuesday's skies revealing patches of blue with white clouds. The air pollution index showed a level of 32 - a second day of good air quality.

The Associated Press has been conducting its own independent air sampling from the Olympic Green. The snapshot readings showed lowered levels of particulate concentration, similar to Monday. However, the figures remained three times higher than Beijing's official numbers.

Experts have said polluted air is unlikely to cause long-term damage to athletes' health. However, short-term exposure to smog and dust particles can inflame airways, reducing oxygen intake. It can exacerbate problems for those with asthma or allergies. The biggest concern has been whether athletic performance, especially in outdoor endurance sports, might suffer.

Lung specialist Dr. Janice Schaeffer, of New York's Long Island, said conditions in Beijing pose a special danger to athletes because of the "triple threat" posed by heat, humidity and haze. Schaeffer, who works with a foundation that teaches young people how to manage their asthma and athletics, said the air quality "is considered the ultimate of challenges for young people when it comes to competing."

Athletes' concerns took center stage last week when four U.S. cyclists walked off the plane in Beijing wearing the black masks. Amid talk that the act insulted the host country, they apologized a day later.

On Tuesday, cyclist Sarah Hammer, who was among the four, said the group had only wanted to take precautions: "The whole point was to have the best performance."

"I still do wear the mask when I feel it's necessary. Obviously today and yesterday, given we had rain, it's been nice. But I still wear it when I need it," she said.

Pat McDonough, head coach for the U.S. cycling team, said the precaution was all part of the rigorous training and preparation that goes into ensuring athletes get the maximum performance.

The team had prepared for heat and humidity by using ice-vests given by Adidas, he said. They dealt with pollution concerns by installing specialized air filters, donated by the Swiss-based company IQAir, in their bike shop facility. The purifiers, used in U.S. and Hong Kong hospitals, are fine enough to keep out SARS virus.

"These events are decided by thousandths of seconds. And it's all the little things you do. We call them one percenters. That's really what our preparations are about," McDonough said.