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From pollution to food, US hopes for best, plans for anything at Beijing Olympics

One of the first times Steve Roush went to Beijing, he got off the plane, looked around and asked a local what time the milky fog that enshrouded the city normally lifts.
"They told me, `That isn't fog,'" said the U.S. Olympic Committee's chief of sport performance, who has made 17 trips to Beijing since 2002 in preparation for the upcoming Olympics.
A few months later, he went back while Beijing was conducting a test run for the Olympics, having halted factory work and greatly curtailed car traffic for three weeks to reduce pollution. He was blown away by how blue the skies were: "I'm looking around and I'm thinking, `Am I in the right spot?'" Roush said.
Pollution. Oppressive heat. Free speech. Food safety. Getting around.
They are all conundrums for the USOC as it prepares to take 600 athletes and another 400 support staff to Beijing for the Olympics in August.
The federation's leaders have heard the horror stories and lived through some of them in their dozens of trips to the city that has promised great Olympics but is facing growing skepticism.
They've also been there on good days, when they've seen firsthand how the system really could operate as smoothly as the Chinese say it will.
"We're expecting the best but prepared for any eventuality," USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said.
The USOC is looking at big-picture preparedness and sending out scores of newsletters, updates and memos to coaches and athletes to help them navigate their way through Beijing and the Olympic village.
Among the biggest concerns:
_Weather and pollution: Temperatures average in the mid-80s F (30 C) with high humidity _ and the pollution, which could range anywhere from minimal to overwhelming. In some surveys, Beijing has surpassed Mexico City as the world's most polluted city.
_Food safety: China has been under heavy scrutiny over the last year because of multiple cases of tainted food it has shipped across the globe.
_Human rights and free speech: The crisis in Darfur and China's imprisonment of dissidents and journalists have led to an outcry among many, including Steven Spielberg, actress Mia Farrow and even Prince Charles.
_Logistics: Getting around is never easy at the Olympics, no matter the city. Gridlock in a city of 17 million is hard to avoid, even if Beijing keeps its dedicated "Olympic traffic lanes" free as it says it will.
Beijing plans to clear the air by taking cars off the road and curtailing factory work for several weeks leading up to the Olympics and for the games themselves, but it could still face problems if, say, the wind stirs up sand from the nearby Gobi desert.
The USOC and its teams are controlling what they can.
To acclimate themselves, the athletics team and others will train in China and neighboring countries for two or three weeks before the Olympics begin on Aug. 8.
And while the British Olympic federation is considering providing masks for athletes to use during competition to fend off particulates, the USOC will provide masks, but not to be used during competition, because that would risk offending the Chinese.
"It would be more for if you're out and about, on a training run, before your competition," Roush said.
Olympic tennis champion Justine Henin is considering not going. Long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie has said he might skip the marathon and focus on the 10,000-meter race.
But American long-distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein spoke the party line when he said the prospect of skipping the Olympics seems ridiculous to him.
"This is an opportunity that comes around every four years," Ritzenhein said. "No matter what the consequences are, if it was in Antarctica, we'd be ready to roll because it's the Olympics."
Asthmatics figure to face the biggest problems.
Dr. Erwin Gelfand of National Jewish in Denver, one of America's leading respiratory hospitals, said about 10 to 15 percent of the general population has asthma and that ratio is probably about the same in the USOC athlete population.
"Could the pollution exacerbate some of the problems an asthmatic might suffer? Absolutely," Gelfand said. "Should they wear a mask if they're available? Beforehand, absolutely. It's pretty simple. I think you do whatever you can to minimize the risk of triggering something."
One of Gelfand's suggestions is to consider increasing the dosage of asthma medicines.
Athletes who take those medicines through inhalers are given therapeutic use exemptions to stay in compliance with anti-doping rules. But for one kind of medicine _ salbutamol _ increased dosage might require further documentation to stay within the rules.
"That hasn't come up to the best of my knowledge, but we're still a significant way out from Beijing," said Larry Bowers, the lead scientist at the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "There's clearly a way to explain the result if you're taking double your dose. On the other hand, if I were an athlete, I'd like some reassurance that that would be the case."
Human-rights and free-speech issues in China continue to make news.
Spielberg shook up the Beijing Organizing Committee with his decision to withdraw as an artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies, saying China and other nations were not doing enough to ease the suffering in Darfur.
Recently, a Dutch lawmaker called for a boycott of the opening ceremonies to protest China's human-rights record.
"It is possible to take part in the games but skip the party beforehand," Joel Voordewind said. "Such a ceremony is only intended to glorify the host, China."
The USOC, meanwhile, has remained largely quiet, in part because it's not expecting problems _ and for other reasons, as well.
One of them is the federation's delicate and slowly improving relationship with the international Olympic community; the USOC is behind a bid to land the 2016 Olympics in Chicago. The USOC also doesn't buy into the notion that it should be independently promoting change in China.
Chairman Peter Ueberroth, an architect of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, has long been fond of China, which bucked the Soviet boycott 24 years ago and helped make those games a success. He acknowledged there are issues China must resolve, many of which were acknowledged by the International Olympic Committee when it awarded the games to Beijing. He said bringing the Olympics to the country can only help in the long run.
"The Olympic Games provide, obviously, the greatest sporting event every four years, but they also provide a gift to the world of transparency," he said. "We get to see each other, get to compete against each other, and the host country, it opens its country up."
The USOC has urged its athletes to come to China well-versed on local customs and on the expectation that the Olympics not be used as a political platform. Much of this has been taught as part of the USOC's ambassador program that was instituted after the Turin Winter Olympics in the wake of bad behavior from Bode Miller and others in the U.S. delegation.
The USOC hasn't put an explicit ban on athletes using the Olympics to make political statements _ the way the British federation has _ other than emphasizing that it expects them to adhere to rules in the Olympic charter that call for the same.
American reporters will make up the biggest segment of the foreign media contingent, and all have been guaranteed full access to report both on sports and non-sports issues while they're in China covering the Olympics.
Recently, however, the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club of China said it has received more than 180 reports of interference in reporters' work over the past year, including beatings and intimidation.
Still, Seibel, the USOC spokesman, expects China to honor its pledge to the media.
"Within the Olympic Games system, there shouldn't be any issues at all," he said. "When a reporter moves outside the system, it's a function of who they're trying to talk to and that person's comfort level. The `person on the street interview' will be a new experience for some of those people."
He said he expects the U.S. embassy to work with the USOC if U.S. citizens in town for the Olympics get into legal trouble.
Seibel said the federation doesn't consider food safety a major concern. All food will be screened by local and international inspectors before being brought into the athletes' village, which is where the majority of athletes will eat most of their meals.
The USOC will also provide meals at its high-performance training center at Beijing Normal University, though most of those meals will be for support staff who can't get inside the village. Athletes will eat there on occasion, and all the food _ brought from America, Australia and much of it from other parts of China _ will be screened before it makes it onto the plate.
"There's just no way they're going to allow a problem with their food supply," Roush said.
No matter what Beijing does, it's unlikely to avoid the logistics problems that plague most Olympics.
"Things always happen with transportation, schedules, just about anything, no matter where you are," said Ron Brant, the coordinator of the men's gymnastics program.
Brant takes his team overseas five to 10 times a year and says he doesn't expect China to present any more problems than the typical stop at a city that hosts a big gymnastics meet. In fact, things could run more smoothly, Brant says, because normally, cities don't come to a halt for a gymnastics meet the way they do for the Olympics.
"But the key is to stay ahead of the organizing committee in looking for potential problems," Brant said. "Do buses run on time? Do they run ahead of schedule? Do they wait? It's just a matter of getting on the ground, seeing what's going on, not getting caught behind. Don't get into a panic mode or a spot where you're spinning your wheels. Have backup plans."
Like many others in the U.S. delegation, Brant's team will arrive in Asia nine days before the competition to ward off jet lag. He will be concerned about dehydration from the long flight, which he says can diminish performance up to 15 percent if not handled properly. This summer, he'll start urging athletes to reprogram their schedules for that morning starting time for team finals _ a change made to accommodate live prime-time TV in the United States.
At a gymnastics meet in November _ a test event _ the Chinese had trouble with the thermostats in the gleaming new National Indoor Stadium and the temperature inside was about 95 F (35 C), Brant said.
"That made it a bit of a challenge," he said.
While that kink will almost certainly be fixed by August, others are bound to arise. USOC officials expect them to be worked out and for China to put on a good show, free of the turmoil many are predicting.
The Olympics are, Roush says, China's best chance to make a good impression to the world. He believes putting on a good show might be more important than winning the medal count, which has long been China's well-publicized goal for its first Olympics on home turf.
"To be honest, for them to win the most medals and to not be great hosts would be a loss of face for them and would be detrimental for what they set out to do with the 2008 Olympic Games," Roush said.

Updated : 2021-08-03 02:21 GMT+08:00