As the Olympics approach, all eyes are on Beijing—and they’re noticing that the view is pretty smoggy. Despite China’s promise of cleaner air for the Summer Games, which begin on August 8, many observers are speculating that the world’s top athletes will probably be breathing some of the world’s most noxious air.
The New York Times recently reported that many Olympic teams are “preparing for the worst” in terms of air quality. For the U.S. athletes, that means training elsewhere, delaying their arrival as long as possible, and maybe even donning filter masks until competition time, at the risk of offending their Chinese hosts.
There’s more at stake than feelings. Kathryn Minnick takes a deeper look at the environmental backdrop to the games in the Winter 2008 issue of Earth Island Journal (article not available online), noting that “the big question is whether short-term ‘face’ or long-term change will win out.”
The games “have morphed into a pageant of environmental correctness,” Minnick writes, with China making a host of green promises in order to land the coveted games. Beijing has been making real progress in some areas, for instance, changing its power generation mix, tightening car emission standards, and cleaning up some of its most polluting factories. And the Chinese have included lots of flashy, high-tech green features in high-profile Olympic venues like the “Bird’s Nest” main stadium and the “Water Cube” swimming stadium.
However, other goals appear to be overblown or perhaps unattainable, environmental observers tell Minnick, and that pesky smog problem looms. Air quality figures for the final day of a four-day August trial test went “mysteriously missing,” Minnick writes.
“China’s attempt to stage a green Olympics is a good sign,” she concludes, “even if being sustainable was a requirement for holding the Games more than it was a free choice.”