Matt Reed was 1,500 meters into the last segment of the triathlon when he found himself gasping for oxygen. His legs were still pounding away at the pavement, his body pumped up after cruising through the swimming and cycling contests, but his lungs were shutting down.
The 32-year-old triathlete from Boulder, Colo., blames air pollution for triggering his asthma attack during the September track meet.
If he returns to Beijing for the Olympics, he says, he will wear a mask except while competing. And he'll try to avoid showing up here until the second week of the Games, when the triathlon is held, even though that would mean missing the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies.
An increasing number of athletes are threatening to skip part or all of the Olympics because they believe the air is unsafe.
Belgian tennis champion Justine Henin said she probably would skip Beijing entirely because of fears the air would aggravate her asthma. The world-record holder in the marathon, Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, broke something of an unofficial taboo on complaining about the air when he announced Monday that he would not run the marathon in Beijing, opting instead for the 10,000-meter run, which is easier on the lungs.
Many teams have set up offshore training camps in South Korea or Japan, murmuring polite but shallow excuses to their Chinese hosts that they are avoiding the pre-Olympics media hype or trying to save money.
"There is no other reason but to stay out of the pollution. It's definitely to avoid the air," said Reed, who if he qualifies will be training with the other U.S. triathletes on South Korea's Cheju island. "This air [in Beijing] is just so terrible for your body."
The British Olympic Assn. commissioned scientists to develop a high-tech breathing mask for its athletes to wear while competing. U.S. Olympic officials say their athletes will not wear masks in competition, but might at other times during their stay in Beijing.
For the Chinese, for whom saving face is crucial, it would be a nightmare to have athletes parade on camera wearing masks, or for there to be a raft of no-shows at the opening ceremony. The country says it has invested more than $16 billion in cleaning up Beijing's air for the Olympics. The Chinese pride themselves on mastering nature; in this case, they have literally tried to move heaven and earth.
Working under the auspices of the futuristic-sounding Bureau of Weather Modification, scientists have been practicing techniques to induce rain showers before the Games that would wash away pollutants. Beijing's planners have created almost overnight a forest twice the size of New York's Central Park on a 1,750-acre site just north of the Olympic village in order to raise oxygen levels.
Nearly a dozen factories are in the process of closing or relocating outside Beijing, including a massive steelworks with 120,000 employees. Factories hundreds of miles away in the Inner Mongolia region and Shanxi, Hebei and Shandong provinces will suspend operations during the Olympic period. About 1.5 million cars -- half of those in the city -- will be banned from the streets during the same period. Beijing recently improved emission standards for automobiles and opened new subway lines.
Zhang Lijun, deputy director of China's State Environmental Protection Agency, told reporters at a news conference Tuesday in Beijing that China would keep a commitment to improve air quality that it made in 2001 when it submitted its Olympic bid.
"After we fully implement all of the Olympic measures, it will be no problem for the air quality to meet acceptable standards. We can deliver on our commitment," Zhang said.
Beijing occupies an unfortunate location in an inland basin that is frequently swept by sandstorms from the Gobi Desert. Mountains on three sides of the city trap the emissions of a booming capital of 17 million people. The average amount of airborne particulate matter, known as PM10 in environmental jargon, is six times the standard recommended by the World Health Organization. (By comparison, Los Angeles' rating is about twice the WHO standard.)
'Deep breath and relax'
Jeff Ruffolo, a public relations consultant to the Beijing Olympics who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, says the concerns about air quality are similar to what he heard in the run-up to the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
"At the end it was fine, and it will be in Beijing too," he said. "Everybody should take a proverbial deep breath and relax."
The Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee announced last month that major pollutants -- particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide -- in the city's air had dropped 13.8% since Beijing won the Olympic bid. But one American expert, Steven Q. Andrews, recently produced a study that said many of the statistical gains were achieved by moving air quality monitors to less polluted areas of Beijing.
Many athletes are also skeptical of the claim.
"We race all around the world, but I've never noticed pollution so badly as in Beijing. Sometimes we'd go for a bike ride before the race, then you'd get back and blow your nose and it's all black," said Reed, the triathlete who suffered an asthma attack last year in Beijing.
To prepare for the Olympics, athletes customarily train for extraordinary conditions such as high altitude or heat. But to train for pollution would not be possible, short of racing behind a bus -- something athletes have actually joked about in the run-up to Beijing.
Jarrod Shoemaker, a 25-year-old triathlete from Sudbury, Mass., said that after racing in Beijing he noticed that "I was so out of breath that I couldn't carry on a conversation, and if I tried to laugh, I'd be doubled up with pain."
He intends to wear a face mask most of his time in Beijing, even if he risks offending the Chinese. "I know it's probably not the best statement to make, but I have to protect my lungs and body."
Jos Hermens, a Dutch sports agent who represents Gebrselassie, says that marathon runners who compete in hot, polluted environments can suffer permanent damage to their health.
"You have to decide how much you want to risk for a particular event. Will you put it all at stake for an Olympic medal?"
Hermens said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he advised Gebrselassie, who still must qualify for the 10,000-meter race, not to run the marathon in Beijing because he already has two gold medals and wants to compete again in 2012. "I suspect other people might follow his example."
Chinese broadcasts of the BBC and CNN on Tuesday night blacked out reports of Gebrselassie's statements.
U.S. official optimistic
In an e-mailed response to questions, U.S. Olympic committee spokesman Darryl Seibel said he did not know of any U.S. athletes who were considering dropping out because of air pollution. He also said the United States would discourage athletes from missing the opening ceremonies.
"We have confidence the air quality during the Games will be at a level that is safe and suitable for elite-level athletic competition," Seibel wrote in the response.
In addition to the triathlon team training in South Korea, American rowers will prepare on the west coast of Japan.
Not every athlete, however, is worried.
Donny Robinson, a 24-year-old cyclist from the Napa Valley, says that some of his fellow athletes are getting hysterical.
"It's all mental with everybody. If they worry so much, it will affect their performance," Robinson said. "I know the Chinese are going to do everything in their power to make the air amazing."
And at least some Beijing residents appreciate all the fuss about the athletes' lungs. After all, they will be breathing the same air.
"We Chinese are too tolerant. We don't complain a lot like the Australians or the Japanese or the Americans," said Bing Xing, a 63-year-old retiree who lives a few blocks from the new Olympic stadium.
Gesturing toward the construction site on a particularly murky afternoon, he said, "As you can see, the situation is not good. Whatever they do to fix it for the Olympics will benefit all of us."