Research to let Kiwi athletes breath easier in Beijing

Last updated 23:55 18/07/2008

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New Zealand's Olympics-bound athletes will be equipped with ground-breaking proprietary research on how to combat the effects of Beijing's notorious pollution, the final stage of an elaborate plan to safeguard their health.

Three years of scientific assessment by Sparc has been augmented by an Auckland University of Technology study delivered to competing sports on Wednesday under wraps.

The AUT study focused on the measures athletes can take to improve their performance despite the presence of high levels of carbon monoxide, exhaust fumes that inhibit an athlete's ability to take in oxygen.

"It will help athletes train themselves in a polluted environment," said Richard Young, a Sparc representative on the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) driven Beijing Acclimatisation Group.

"I can't go into it, we're probably the only country that knows about this," he said.

One measure Sparc and the NZOC have advocated to alleviate the effects of vehicle emissions and dust particles is no surprise – and already highly visible.

Team members will be issued with face masks to wear out of competition, while ice vests are available to reduce the effects of the associated problems of heat and humidity.

The host city has taken drastic measures to try and eradicate smog during the duration of the Games.

Factories and construction sites will be shut down, traffic limited and even the army are shelling cloud cover with silver iodide in an artificial bid to clear the air with rainfall.

But fluctuating air quality is certain to impact on performance, with one Australian report suggesting exercise-induced asthma could affect an athlete's performance by up to 30 per cent.

Young, who has had scientists collecting data in the Chinese capital since 2006, was confident the threat posed by asthma had been contained.

Every potential New Zealand athlete had been assessed in conditions designed to simulate air with a high particle content last year.

Confirmed asthmatics then applied for an exemption allowing them to take ventolin – essential as the medication is on the list of banned substances.

Young said about five athletes that had not previously recognised asthma as a problem needed exemptions.

The cycling road races and the marathons are considered the most at risk sports – particularly the latter as cyclists have the cooling benefit of a breeze.

Men's marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie, who suffers from exercise-related asthma, said earlier this year he would not compete – although the Ethiopian Athletics Federation may force him to race.

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New Zealand's marathon runners Nina Rillstone and Liza Hunter-Galvan have been advised to delay their arrival until as close as possible to race day on August 17.

Meanwhile, though masks should be worn when walking around on heavily polluted days Young said they were not recommended for competition.

"Some countries are going to provide masks for their athletes to compete in, it's just not feasible," he said, saying masks would add stress to an already difficult task.

"They're already in a polluted environment and (masks) also increase the resistance to breathing."

He said athletes competing indoors also had to be wary.

"From the data we've gathered the air isn't filtered. It's cool but it's not filtered," he said.

On the water, Young said the triathlon swim course passed a quality test but the yachting venue at Qingdao was polluted, depending on the prevailing current.

"We heard stories about yachties being surprised at what floats past them and we heard of an Australian who fell in with a cut and developed long-term health problems as a result.

"I don't know who it is or whether it's a myth but it made it's way around the yachting community and it was the best story in terms of motivating people to take close attention if they have cuts," said Young, who warned competitors to apply an antiseptic gel to any open wounds.  

- NZPA

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