The marathon - an endurance sport of such bodily distress that folklore tells of the first participant meeting death upon completion - is dependent upon the runner's body to work as efficiently as possible for 26.2 miles. Somewhere around mile 20, many runners experience glycogen depletion, also known as "hitting the wall." Their calves cramp up and, having run out of fuel, their body begins to digest its muscles. As a survival mechanism, the body is undeniably vocal against such pernicious efforts. In essence, it stubbornly declares "will only work for food."
If the marathon can be described as unforgiving, then holding such an event in one of the world's most polluted cities can be summed up as criminal. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
When bidding for the upcoming Olympics in 2000, China coined the 'Green Games' concept. Assuming that environmental progress continues after the games, it is ambitious and forward thinking of this developing country to begin channeling its economic triumphs into social progress (note the word begin). In addition, giving China this global responsibility and the opportunity to show off its innovative planning has given the notoriously intractable country the incentive to conciliate itself to international standards (WTO - take note of this). Most notably, it is a wake up call that if one of the dirtiest developing countries can host an environmentally friendly Olympic Village, then perhaps the rich countries can as well.
It was also unrealistic to expect the earth to cleanse itself after years of human abuse and premature for the IOC to send our athletes as their soldiers of PR. Though this may technically be the second green Olympic games (1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer was first), somehow, the IOC disregarded the effect on the athletes. Most news reports still note a grey or brown haze that, despite $40 Billion towards the Olympic effort, continues to enshroud the city. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a US Olympian was forced to drop out of a recent mountain-bike test event due to "nausea and breathing difficulties."
Beijing's 'ambitious' efforts are approaching its own wall. Recently, UNEP reported that, despite initial progress, 2006 marked the year that the levels of the four major pollutants have either risen or ceased to decline. Particulate matter hovers at the same level as in 2000 and on some days it's three times the WHO safe limit. The bloated 'Green Games' PR surrounding the environmental clean-up plan is running not out of glycogen but out of time - the intangible non-renewable resource.
Even at the New York Marathon the celebrated race became a wake mourning the death of one of the sport's elite. Less than 6 miles into the Men's Olympic Trial, 28 year-old Ryan Shay collapsed and died from an enlarged heart. Though this tragedy is not due to environmental reasons, it serves as a reminder of the rigors that the body endures when training and competing.
Beijing won't be the first Olympic games with dirty air issues. The 1904 marathon (in a much more backwards St. Louis, MO) had competitors running in a 90-degree sauna while choking on dust for most of the course. Ten miles before the finish line, the eventual winner had to be repeatedly force-fed strychnine sulfate mixed into raw egg white and brandy (then-legitimate) and have two people support him as he entered the stadium. He passed out before he could claim his gold medal. One has to question an event where performance enhancing drugs aren't enough.
During the race, runners need to refuel with water and carbohydrates. However, the Beijing games may be the first marathon to necessitate oxygen tanks along its path. Our elite athletes make a career out of conditioning themselves to perform beyond what the majority of us can do. Forcing runners to compete in such inhumane conditions is a crime against humanity... and in a very emblematic country.
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