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Science & Space

Athens' smog may be hurdle for Olympic athletes

But mayor vows pollution won't be a problem for competitors

By Camille Feanny and Femi Oke

Air pollution in the ancient city may harm athletes' performance.
Air pollution in the ancient city may affect athletes' performance.
Athens (Greece)
Environmental Issues
Olympic air:
Athens is not the first Olympic venue to face air pollution problems. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 1996 Atlanta Games each had a number of bad air days.

(CNN) -- Olympic runner Ryan Tolbert-Jackson is familiar with the effects of smog. She has asthma, which was triggered after she competed at the 1997 World Championships in Athens.

She says she hopes that returning to the Greek city to compete in the 2004 Olympics won't leave her gasping for air.

"I think your body deals with allergies and pollution as if it's fighting off a virus," Tolbert-Jackson says. "Your breathing's labored. You're more fatigued."

Environmental experts have cautioned that the air pollution in Athens may be a problem for some athletes at this year's games, which begin August 13. A recent report by the World Wildlife Fund paints a bleak picture of the overall environment in the ancient city -- and the U.S. Olympic Committee isn't taking any chances with its athletes.

"We're doing several things in terms of preparing for the air pollution in Athens," says Randy Wilber, senior sports physiologist with the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Air pollution is not new for Athens, but some say poor city planning and a growing population have added to the problem over the years.

Published reports show that high levels of particle pollution, combined with emissions from automobiles and industry cause major concentrations of ozone and nitrogen oxide to build in the atmosphere. This buildup occurs mostly during the summer when pollutants are baked by the intense Mediterranean heat and humidity.

Some U.S. Olympic Committee doctors have expressed concern that some athletes may have some breathing difficulty -- especially those competing in outdoor events.

"There is some potential for athletes' performance to be hindered, depending on first, where the venue is [and] secondly, what that sport or event is," Wilber said.

But Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyiannis has promised that the smoggy city will be transformed.

"It's much better than it was," Bakoyiannis said. "Athens had a bad reputation years ago for being a polluted city. But that was 25 years ago. The air in Athens will be really no problem for the athletes."

The Olympics is a billion-dollar business, and a lot of work and money has gone into bringing fresh air to Athens.

Even the World Wildlife Fund report gave the city high scores for improving its public transportation. Buses will be powered by natural gas, and the metro has been expanded. Other changes will see Olympic officials driving electric cars, the planting of thousands of new trees and the closing of factories in August.

Bakoyiannis contends that the government has made a huge multiyear investment to clear the air in Athens.

"This is a very long and expensive work when you want to clear the air, but it's worth it," she said. "I'm happy when people come to Athens who knew this city years ago [and] they see the difference. They are amazed, and that's the biggest medal anybody can get."

The mayor's confidence notwithstanding, American athletes have been briefed on how to cope with air pollution in Greece.

"We actually started as far back as May 2003 by going to Athens and measuring the pollution levels at various venues," Wilber said. "Armed with that information, we were able to educate our coaches and athletes as to how good or how bad the air pollution will be in those environments."

Wilber's advice for his athletes was to train a few times in polluted air in the months leading up to the games. That way, if they developed any respiratory problems, they would have plenty of time to get treatment.

Tolbert-Jackson agrees and adds that the best thing athletes can do is to be outside as little as possible, especially if they have allergies or asthma.

"Really, you just go warm up for your event, race and then go back inside," she says.

But this is not the sort of Olympic experience for which the Athens mayor has planned. With all the preparations to clear the air, if the pollution proves to affect any athletes, it won't be for the city's lack of trying.

Indeed, nobody will really know how effective the air pollution measures have been until the games begin. Until then, athletes and Olympic officials will be waiting to exhale.

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