BEIJING — 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.