Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 08:07 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 08:07 | SYDNEY

The Olympic cough

7 April 2008 15:38

Alistair Thornton is a Beijing-based economic analyst.

My lungs, more used to the Bondi sea breeze than the Beijing city smog, have not fared so well. I’m now the proud owner of an authentic Beijinger cough. And as each day passes, I wince less and less at the horrific phlegm-hacking noises that seem to accompany every street corner. It’s understandable, sort of.

But my local sources inform me that I should count myself lucky; they’ve never had it so good. A recent Gallup Poll of Beijing residents agrees, with two-thirds saying that air pollution has improved in recent years, up from about a half in 2006. Officials claim Beijing had sixty-seven ‘blue-sky days’ between January and the end of March, the best in nine years. The £8bn of investment that the authorities have funnelled into cleaner air programmes seems to be paying off.

China has made promises of a ‘Green Olympic Games’, and intends to keep them. About half of the investment cash has been directed at public transport infrastructure, in an attempt to lure the ever-increasing number of cars off the road (Beijingers are buying over 1,100 new cars every day). New subway lines, a new high-speed airport rail line and 5,000 gas buses are due to be unveiled in the next couple of months. The numbers of cars on the road is to be halved in the two months preceding the big ‘O’ and limited to 1 million during the Games, something that people here will believe when they see.

Six surrounding provinces and municipalities, spanning an area larger than France, Germany and Italy combined, have already started shutting down heavily polluting factories, and many more are planned. Authorities are reluctant to release figures on factory closures, but insist that enough will be done to ensure palatable air. There has also been a wide-ranging shift from coal to gas, and many of the city’s 10,000 construction sites will be shut down as early as May.

These measures haven’t prevented Olympic champion Haile Gebreselassie from pulling out of the marathon, complaining that he had 'no intention of committing suicide in Beijing'. These comments have been played down both by China and the International Olympic Committee. The IOC’s chief medical officer, Arne Ljungquist, has recently stated that although residual pollution levels may affect athletes’ performances, no serious danger is posed by competing.  

So with pollution apparently sorted, Chinese officials have turned their sights to that other great Olympic spoiler, rain. Meteorological engineers have been looking into procuring a precipitation-free Olympics, and are currently experimenting with two methods. The first involves injecting clouds with Silver Nitrate, which splits the water droplets, making them less likely to gain the weight needed to fall. The second, called ‘cloud seeding’, involves firing rockets full of Silver Iodate pellets into the sky. This has the opposite effect, making it rain. In all likelihood, cloud seeding will be used in the weeks preceding the Games, to ensure Beijing is all rained out in time for the opening ceremony.

China is certainly going to great lengths to ensure that its ‘coming-out party’ is not ruined by excess pollution or inclement weather. And I, for one, would place money that we won’t see much of either. However, the interesting question is, when the event is all packed up and the athletes are reclining at home, will my cough get even worse?

Photo by Flickr user xiaming, used under a Creative Commons licence.