ENVIROMENT

MASKS? AT THE OLYMPICS?

ALEXANDRA SHIMO August 18 2008
ENVIROMENT

MASKS? AT THE OLYMPICS?

ALEXANDRA SHIMO August 18 2008

MASKS? AT THE OLYMPICS?

ENVIROMENT

As one athlete puts it, ‘this is about sport, not fashion’

ALEXANDRA SHIMO

When long-dis-

tance race walker Tim Berrett arrives in China later this month, he will need to decide whether to spend most of the Olympic Games wearing a mask. The 43-year-old athlete, who is ranked first in Canada in the 50-km distance, will make his final decision once he breathes in the now-notorious Beijing air. “If I have respiratory problems once I get to the city, I may put one on and try to stay inside,” says Edmonton-based Berrett.

Canadian authorities have decided to issue carbon-filter masks, which remove particulate matter, to all athletes who request them during the Games. Some athletes have already decided to wear the clumsy-looking contraptions. Mountain biker Seamus McGrath, 32, ordered his a few weeks ago, and has worn it around his Victoria home to get used to it. He even tried biking in it, but his face got hot and sweaty, and he couldn’t get enough airflow through. Still, he will strap it on for the duration of the Games, taking it off only when he’s competing or training. Although the mask is inconvenient, McGrath believes it will improve his performance. An estimated one in six Olympic athletes has exerciseinduced asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, including McGrath, and for these people the air quality could aggravate their medical problems at a critical moment. “I’m not concerned with how I look,” explains McGrath, a member of the Tim Hortons national cycling team. “This is about sport, not fashion.”

Chinese authorities have insisted masks won’t be necessary. The country has spent US$20 billion on anti-pollution measures, including forcing roughly two million cars off the streets and temporarily closing hundreds of factories in surrounding provinces. About one in 10 gas stations have been closed; many more have been fitted with devices to reduce

‘WHEN YOU WEAR A MASK, YOU ARE BASICALLY SAYING YOU GUYS STINK,' SAYS ONE U.S. OFFICIAL

fumes. Authorities may even ban 90 per cent of Beijing’s cars on bad days. “When people get acclimated, they’ll see they won’t need a mask,” says Jeff Ruffolo, a senior adviser to the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.

Still, the air quality has upset competitors in the past—breathing difficulties made some athletes ill during pre-Olympic competitions held in China. This prompted Canadian authorities to try out a number of devices, before choosing a simple carbon filter, which can be worn at rest, rather than during strenuous exercise. While the masks remove particulate matter, they don’t filter the high levels of nitrogen dioxide or ozone, which can also cause lung problems.

Masks have been issued to other national teams too. The British have developed one that can be used at rest and during exercise. Initially the devices were to be worn in competition, although this is now strongly discouraged, in part because it would be seen as an insult to the Chinese hosts. “When you

wear a mask, you are basically saying you guys stink,” explains Scott Schnitzspahn, performance director of the U.S. triathlon team.

Every athlete on Team USA has been issued with a specially developed high tech filter. (Some members of the U.S. cycling team arrived in Beijing earlier this week wearing the black respiratory masks, causing a spokesperson for USA Cycling to insist the athletes weren’t trying to make a statement.) Details about the U.S. masks are being kept top secret: some experts believe the hushhush approach is partly to create a psychological advantagemask brinkmanship. “This is the games before the Games,” says Robert McCormack, chief medical officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Whatever the device, Canadian athletes will likely have less reason to wear one than

competitors from other countries. Officials have decided the best way to address the air quality issue is to remove athletes from Beijing altogether. The track and field team will spend much of the Games in Singapore, with most flying into Beijing just a few days before their competitions. The soccer, fencing, and swimming teams will also be housed in this Asian city, which has similar heat and humidity, but much less pollution. The tae kwon do and pentathlon teams will be in Korea, and the water polo teams in Australia. “We wanted to get them in a protected environment without the stress and extra distractions that happen during the Olympic Games,” McCormack explains.

Staying in Singapore, Berrett believes, far away from the smog and dust of the Chinese capital, is a much better solution. “This is an event the whole world is watching. If the competitors show up at the opening ceremony covering their faces, it will be a slap in the face for our hosts.” M