Tense atmosphere in Beijing

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WITH more than two years until the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, to be staged in the spectacular main stadium nicknamed the "Bird's Nest", the facilities may be out of this world but Beijing faces problems that are unlikely to be overcome by the classic Chinese combination of unlimited cash, world-class engineering and infinite resources of manpower.

The Games of the XXIX Olympiad were awarded to Beijing in 2001, the Chinese capital beating off competition from Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and Osaka, China securing sport's ultimate prize at the second time of asking, having been beaten by Sydney for the 2000 Games.

At the International Olympic Committee (IOC) election held in Moscow five years ago, much Olympic angst was expressed in the areas of Beijing's chronic pollution problem, human rights, drugs in sport and another of the city's Achilles Heel, traffic congestion, but the IOC nevertheless took the plunge into the unknown.

Twelve brand new venues, 11 upgraded and nine temporary venues are rapidly emerging from the drab, flat, polluted Beijing cityscape; magnificent feats of design and engineering, but many important issues remain to be resolved

Uppermost in the minds of many is Beijing's extreme summer climate, and indeed this forced organisers to move the games back from their traditional "window" of the last week in July and the first week in August to their confirmed dates of August 8-24.

Barry Gromett of the Met Office sees this as window-dressing, commenting: "Beijing's summer climate is traditionally one of extreme temperatures, high humidity, unpredictable winds and a trend towards violent electrical storms which bring with them the risk of excessive rainfall with the prospect of flooding."

The statistics bear that out. Beijing's average August rainfall is 140mm (5.5 inches) compared with London's 60mm (2.4 inches) and Edinburgh's 77mm (3 inches) with a 49% daily risk of rain and a 26% chance of daily thunderstorms.

Meanwhile, the Chinese capital bakes in August average temperatures of 30C (86F) with afternoons frequently topping the 100F (38C) mark with daily August humidity ranging from over 95% in the mornings, seldom falling below 50% during the afternoons, and averaging 74% during Beijing's Olympic fortnight.

Closely allied to Beijing's still and stifling climate is the city's chronic pollution problem; according to a report last September by the European Space Agency (ESA), the world's largest amount of the smog gas, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), is to be found hanging over Beijing with suspended particle levels reaching a dangerous 300 micrograms per cubic metre.

With the sun rarely more than a dull ochre glow in the Beijing sky, Ken Stevenson of the Ayrshire-based environmental consultants AEA Technology says, "Beijing's pollution emanates from burgeoning car ownership [an estimated 25% of Beijing's 16 million inhabitants now have cars and ownership is rising at over 10% per annum] with generally older commercial and personal vehicles using low-grade fuel and emitting a dangerous cocktail of pollutants including sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, particulates and nitrogen dioxide, while industry continues to grow, burning fossil fuels and emission controls are far behind western standards."

But he sees little prospect of short-term improvement in time for the Beijing Olympics, saying: "There is a certain amount can be done by restricting vehicle use during the event, but the added complication is the hot, still weather which allows the smog to accumulate and, realistically, two-and-a-half years is not a long time to solve a problem like this."

Dr Marco Cardinale is research manager at the UK's Olympic Medical Institute and is leading the BOA's Beijing acclimatisation project, covering areas such as pollution, climate, diet, clothing and even jet lag.

"The Beijing authorities have assured us that factories will be shut down for a month beforehand, that vehicle use will be regulated and that the pollution situation should be no worse than Athens."

Dr Brian Walker, medical director at the Scottish Institute of Sport, is also concerned about air quality, explaining: "There is anecdotal evidence that pollution irritants will suppress athletic performance and that elite athletes, whose immune systems are generally reduced, can be more susceptible to infections and viruses."

He added: "My primary concern is the effect on athletes' respiratory systems, those with an existing asthmatic condition which could well be exacerbated; those who have exercise-induced asthma and we could well see athletes presenting for the first time at the biggest event of their careers. I am also concerned - based on recent experiences - over food hygiene, having had five athletes return from China with gastroenteritis."

Dr Cardinale considers Beijing's summer climate the main issue for the groundbreaking Olympic Medical Institute, a joint-venture between the BOA and the English Institute of Sport, and says: "It won't be too different from Athens, but we are working to study different options to make sure our athletes and support staff will be able to cope with heat and humidity. China is an unknown quantity and if pollution reduction measures are not undertaken as promised, athletes could be in difficulties. It's absolutely vital they do as promised."

HAVING SUCCESSFULLY BASED THEMSELVES IN Cyprus before and during the Athens Olympics, a 20-man BOA delegation has recently returned from the region and it appears that the island of Macau, three-hours by air from Beijing, will be selected as the preparation camp ahead of the 2008 Olympiad.

A BOA spokesman said: "We looked at options in Beijing itself, Shanghai and Macau and, although it is up to the sports to make the final decision, and some sports like sailing will be in specialist holding camps, Macau offers us excellent facilities, similar climate and culture to Beijing and it is within a reasonable travelling distance to the Olympic city."

Triple Olympic gold medallist Matthew Pinsent raised ethical and child protection issues following a visit to China last year and human rights campaigners celebrated when Beijing organisers dropped controversial plans to stage the beach volleyball event at Tiananmen Square, site of the June 1989 massacre of protesters, an IOC spokesman describing the original proposal as "inappropriate".

Scots Olympic gold medal cyclist Chris Hoy may never have competed in China, but the 30-year-old, whose 1km time trial event is not part of the Beijing cycling programme, is unconcerned about competing there, or what may be taking place behind the Great Wall of China.

"British cycling is now in a position where our athletes can go into any championship anywhere in the world and be confident of winning medals, regardless of how hostile the competitive environment might be," he says. "Obviously I and my prospective GB team-mates would want to compete in Beijing ahead of 2008, but the velodrome and the village, my two key venues, will be similar to anywhere in the world and therefore the variables should be minimal."

With Chinese cyclists now emerging in world terms, Hoy, who plans to concentrate on the team time trial in Beijing, is aware of this but says: "It's not for me to cast aspersions or to make accusations about the possibility of them using drugs. My job is to go there and be confident in my preparations and do the best I can against whatever racers are put in front of me."

But drugs are an issue as China tries to make up the four gold medals that would see the hosts overtake the USA and justify the reported 12bn direct cost and 8bn associated infrastructure cost as an estimated five billion TV viewers tune in to watch a nation that was ostensibly closed to the outside world a generation ago.

Scots rowing star Katherine Grainger, who won silver medals in the women's quad sculls in Sydney and the coxless pairs in Athens, plans to go for the women's quad sculls in Beijing and plans to visit the Shinyu rowing and canoeing centre after this year's world rowing championships.

Of her Chinese rivals, Grainger says: "When they withdrew ahead of Sydney in the midst of the EPO revelations, it did not fill anyone with confidence and as you tend not to see them from one major championship to another and given the pressure on all Chinese athletes in Beijing, it raises questions and leaves a bad taste."

A source at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said: "WADA and the IOC are acutely aware of the possibilities in China and are monitoring the situation extremely closely."

China is now conducting over 6,000 drug tests annually compared to just 165 in 1990, while UK Sport carried out 7,852 last year, but, unlike Britain, China criminalised doping two years ago.

China will be left with a legacy of spectacular world-class facilities, which will help should the country become a global venue for world championships and even a possible FIFA World Cup bidder for 2014, and the performance directors of the two "blue-riband" sports, athletics and swimming, have recently returned from Beijing and were impressed by what they saw.

Dave Collins, the under-fire UK Athletics performance director, says of the 91,000-seat National Stadium that will host the track and field programme as well as the opening and closing ceremonies: "It's mind-boggling and it sets a benchmark for London, but it is the road events that give me most concern given the air quality problem.

"The World Junior Championships are in Beijing this year and there are opportunities for many of the emerging talents to stake a claim for an Olympic place."

Meanwhile, his counterpart at UK Swimming, Ian Turner, commenting on the spectacular National Aquatics Centre adjacent to the main stadium on Olympic Green and the 17,000-capacity Olympic Village, said: "It is quite mesmerising, but we have a concern as to the availability of the 50m pool in the village being available for warm-up and training.

"We've had swimmers into China regularly over the past five years including Scots David Carry and Caitlin McClatchey and that's the key to success in 2008."

But, for athletes whose sports are taking place off the main campus, life will be less easy.

The brand-new Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park and Laoshan Velodrome are 30km and 25km to the east and west of Olympic Green respectively, each taking this correspondent more than two hours to reach by taxi on a routine Monday and Tuesday lunchtime.

Apart from the Hong Kong-based venue for the Olympic equestrian events, chosen because of China's antediluvian quarantine regulations, the most remote 2008 Olympic venue is the 46m Qingdao International Sailing Centre, 890km (550miles) from Beijing on the east coast Fushan Bay and defending Yngling champion Shirley Robertson has her concerns.

"I think it is going to be a very, very difficult regatta with light winds compounding the wider cultural issues and China's relative inexperience in hosting international sailing events," said Robertson who will be going for her third Olympic gold in five Games with new crew Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor.

And Robertson's compatriot, RYA Olympic sailing team manager Stephen Park, who recently returned from his fourth site visit to Qingdao, agrees, commenting: "This is going to be the most demanding regatta of our sailors' lives for sure and they could find themselves out on the water, ready to race each and every day, which will be, mentally and physically, extremely challenging.

"Because of the distance from Beijing, the 2008 Olympic sailing regatta could feel like a mini Olympic Games within an Olympiad, but there is no doubt that the on-shore facilities will be of the highest order.

"We are fortunate to have two test events in August this year and next at which Shirley's crew will be taking part, and young Scots Mark Andrews and Luke Patience could be knocking on the door."

OVERBEARING SECURITY - A BEIJING OFFICIAL proudly proclaimed that "over half our 70,000 volunteers will be employed in security work" - with a budget set to break through the 1bn mark coupled with an institutionalised suspicion of the media look set to see the Beijing Olympics certainly more secure, while, with less that 5% of Beijing's population speaking English, and punitive visa regulations, Team GB's traditional travelling support looks likely to have a torrid time.

"We have published a textbook of 'Olympic Security English', which mainly focuses on the handling of every possible problem that may happen during our security work for the games," said Ma Zhenchuan, director of the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau, who is also a deputy head of the co-ordination team organising Olympic security.

But Liz Mendl, director of athlete services at the Scottish Institute of Sport, sees Beijing more as an opportunity than a threat, saying: "There are huge practical and cultural challenges to be overcome, but I'm sure that can be done with the right support, and when it comes to the Paralympics, let's not forget that a generation ago, China did not recognise disability, so sport can genuinely be seen as moulding perceptions and helping to society."

And, her colleague, SIS performance director Marty Aitken, is tipping Andy Murray for Beijing tennis gold at the brand new 17,500-seat Olympic Tennis Centre on Olympic Green, saying: "It's ready-made for Andy.

"Rarely does the men's singles gold go to one of the top ten and he's well capable of being inspired for it.

"I very much hope that we can maintain the momentum from a very successful Commonwealth Games and support Scottish athletes in making the step up to qualification for and potential medals at Beijing in 2008."