The shameful, polluted Olympics

olympics.jpgYou can’t criticize awarding the Olympic Games to China just because their rapacious coal-building policy has now made them the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions (see “The immorality of China’s coal policy is breathtaking (literally).” By that standard, America should never have been awarded the games.

But awarding the games to a city that is one of the most polluted in the world — let alone in a country that has such a shameful record on human rights — is simply unconscionable. And quite unfair to the athletes. Consider this literally staggering story from the Newshour:

ADAM CRAIG, USA Cycling: I’ve never had any experience even remotely close to what I had in Beijing last fall.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Last September, he was in the Chinese capital to compete in a series of pre-Olympic warm-up races.

ADAM CRAIG: It’s like — it’s a weird bronchial spasm thing that I was getting, that just like — whenever you tried to take enough breath to give your muscles that fuel of oxygen they need, your bronchioles just start spasming and you just like physically can’t do it.

And it’s like akin to drowning, or something, just not being able to take that full breath. And, you know, having your body really require that oxygen and not being able to get it is a pretty unique and pretty terrifying situation, I think.

[Kudos to the International Olympic Committee, its U.S. corporate sponsors — General Electric, Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s, Kodak, and Johnson & Johnson — and the Chinese for turning outdoor endurance sports into torture — almost literally re-creating the experience of water boarding. I guess it is appropriate that President Bush is attending the games after all.]

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Just 30 minutes after the starting gun of the race, Craig had to quit, but he had lots of world-class company.

ADAM CRAIG: The current world champion and the current Olympic champion, Julien Absalon, same deal, about the same point in the race, 20 or 30 minutes in, actually was sick to his stomach, and threw up, and was hacking, and wheezing, and had to pull out.

And, yes, I think there were 46 starters and eight finishers. So that’s a pretty high attrition rate for a two-hour mountain bike race around a fairly easy course.

China’s much-vaunted air pollution index presents a bizarrely rosy picture of the dirty reality. As the Post noted:

Despite the absence of any hint of blue above the horizon, the environmental ministry released a statement headlined, “Blue Sky over Beijing with Olympics 5 Days Away.”

Experts have questioned the reliability of the air pollution index, noting that China does not include two of the most dangerous pollutants, ozone and small particulate matter, known as PM2.5, in the readings. A Chinese news agency reported Monday that China will begin monitoring those pollutants after the Olympics.

A discussion of China’s censorship and human rights abuse is beyond the scope of this blog, so I will simply excerpt a terrific piece today by Post sports columnist, Sally Jenkins, “Partners in Grime“:

Anyone who believed the Chinese government would use the Olympics as an opportunity to become a human rights beacon and environmental model was either softheaded, or lying. Capitalism is not the same thing as democracy. China’s interest then and now was the consolidation of state power via economics. The government is merely behaving as it always has.

But the bad air here has shown the IOC and its commercial sponsors in an especially ugly and damning light. They have been conspicuous cowards in dealing with Chinese officials, and maybe even outright collaborators, on every issue from human rights to the environment to censorship. The silence of IOC President Jacques Rogge in the face of the continuing dissident sweeps amounts to complicity. “In view of my responsibilities, I have lost some of my freedom of speech,” he said last week. Rogge’s idea of a solution to the thorny problems of these Games is to hope “the magic” will take over once they begin.

Most disgraceful of all is the fact that six of the 12 worldwide Olympic partners are American companies. This has to heart-sicken any patriot. These companies will reap the full exposure of the Summer Games, swathing themselves in the flag, and rationalizing that their business is helping uplift the Chinese people. Don’t buy it — or them. You should know exactly who they are: General Electric (which owns NBC), Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s, Kodak, and Johnson & Johnson. (The others are Canadian-based Manulife Financial; Lenovo, the Chinese personal computer maker; the French information technology services company Atos Origin; the Swiss watch manufacturer Omega; Panasonic; and Samsung.) When these acquiesced to the Chinese government’s crackdown, and effectively accepted the censorship of the press during these Games, they fell into a special category of profiteers that Franklin Delano Roosevelt described in his “Four Freedoms” speech.

“We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests,” Roosevelt said.

One would like to think that this travesty will encourage China to clean up its act. But more likely is that China will take this as evidence that the Almighty Dollar trumps all other human concerns.

Shame on everyone involved in this charade — except the athletes, who devoted years and years of their lives to training for this singular moment. I hope they are able to perform at their best, which, after all, is the central point of the Olympics.

11 Responses to The shameful, polluted Olympics

  1. BikingBis says:

    Those US Olympic cyclists who showed up wearing facemasks the other day have apologized to the Chinese government. Sounds like those US companies should be apologizing to the US athletes instead.

  2. nataraj says:

    What is interesting is – 17 million people go thr’ this “waterboarding” all the time – and somehow to subject a few thousand “western” athletes to the same situation is “unconscionable”.

    How much is each athlete worth in terms of Beijing residents ?

  3. Joe says:

    Well we can’t stop Beijing from poisoning its citizens. Much as nobody seems to be able to stop us from destroying the climate.

    But the point of the Olympics is to see the best athletes perform under somewhat close to normal if not ideal conditions. These athletes train their entire lives to win a gold medal, to set a world record. It is impossible to train under comparable conditions to Beijing, because the pollution is too dangerous.

    So these athletes have been robbed of the chance to perform their best. The only thing you can say about the games is that everyone will be performing under equal conditions — although even that isn’t true, since rich countries like ours can fly their athletes in and out several times, so they don’t have to keep breathing the dirty air.

  4. Scatter says:

    This was sent to me this morning:

    Beijing 4.00 pm 6th August

  5. Uosdwis says:

    I’m sure Bush will be either only be in rooms that are filtered to within an inch of it’s life, or we will just bring enough American air for the entire trip! USA USA USA! lol

  6. Doug says:

    They should have waited until the September/October timeframe.

    I was in Bejing at that time last year, and the skies really were plenty blue, and the temperature was quite comfortable. That mid-fall time of year generally has much nicer weather; I guess that also means there’s enough wind to blow away the haze for a time.

    Though I could still see the effects of the pollution. Specifically, in the Forbidden City, there are a lot of ancient marble carvings that form railings, and other exposed artwork. They all showed signs of a tremendous amount of erosion, probably due to acid rain, to the point where often you couldn’t really tell what had originally been carved. You could only see blobby shapes. Veins of harder material within the marble jutted out, almost grotesquely.

    Hopefully this aspect of the Olympics, while being terrible for the athletes, will raise enough awareness, both within China and in the rest of the world, that more will be done. All we’ll need to do is reference just how far below average all the gold-medal winners’ performance numbers were in ’08.

  7. Peter Foley says:

    Doug, Carvings in marble/limestone are notoriously soft, locally less then 100 years of weathering destroy all fine features. Expecting a country as poor as China to spend as much as we do on pollution control is silly. Have you ever visited a city with such old stone work before to compare with?

    The IOC has sold out, It is silly to expect world class efforts in Near sea level Smog. Why did they, IOC let a the black hole of Beijing to be an Olympic city?

    Hopefully some fellow travelers and socialists will see the true effects of communism on China, Tibet, and Taiwan.

  8. Vance says:

    Hi Joe,

    This isn’t the first time you’ve been intensely critical of China, nor the first time that I’ve taken issue with your tone. (See this post:

    While I appreciate your conviction, I want to remind you that using such harsh words (“unconscionable,” “shame on everyone involved in this charade”) only broadens an existing communication gap between China and the rest of the world by perpetuating Chinese stereotypes that foreigners are elitist and Western stereotypes that China is evil or hopeless.

    In some ways, I suppose it comes down to what your ultimate goal is. The intensely pessimistic tone of foreign discussion of China’s environment is often founded on some sort of journalistic ideal that “the truth must be told, regardless of the consequences.” But for those of us working constructively with China on long-term solutions (which, as I’m sure you know, our world desperately needs), this incessant drum beat from abroad that China is bad bad bad is frustrating and counterproductive.

    I hope this is somewhat clear and helpful. Please look me up if you ever come to Beijing so I can give you some cultural pointers. :)


  9. Joe says:


    What China has been doing on coal in recent years is indeed unconscionable. The Olympics has become a farce. There is a good article in the Washington Post today on how the Chinese people have been shielded from what the rest of the world thinks of them, see “Blinded By the Firewall: Why the Chinese Think The World Loves China.” I can’t imagine any reason for soft-pedaling the truth to China — or any country.

    I expect to continue to be intensely critical of China, much as I am intensely critical of any major country, including my own, blindly set on destroying the health and well-being of their citizens and those of the rest of the world.

    Sadly, we have run out of time to wait on “long-term solutions.” If U.S. and Chinese leaders don’t reverse course sharply in the next decade, it doesn’t much matter what happens after that.

    I appreciate that the Chinese government does not allow people operating in China to speak truth to power. I will try not to be critical of those trying their best to work within a flawed and corrupt system. But in turn, I cannot accept your criticism.

    I probably post 10 times as much on the horror of the Bush administration than I do on the horror of the Chinese administration. But China has sought the attention of the world by pursuing these Olympics while creating the misimpression they would clean up their act — from either an environmental or human rights perspective.

    If China can’t handle a few strong adjectives and verbs, then I guess it isn’t ready to take a leadership role in the world after all. It may be a cliché, but with great power comes great responsibility. The reverse is true. If you don’t exert great responsibility, then you are not a great power.

  10. Mr.Mom says:

    Wow, good stuff Joe.

  11. Douglas Wise says:

    I have, for a few months, been reading posts on Climate Progress. This was in response to advice from a poster on RealClimate when, having laid aside my scepticism re AGW, I asked where I could find intelligent discussion on solutions.

    To some extent, your website has encouraged me to believe that technical fixes might already exist which, if deployed internationally and very soon, could prevent dangerous climate change. Simultaneously, however, your political posts seem depressingly partisan and counter-productive.

    As I understand matters, we are facing longish-term threats from climate change and immediate threats from peak oil. The latter may be a spur to the solution of the former but only if we don’t turn to non CCS coal, tar sands etc. Simultaneously, however, we are experiencing massive population growth and, if we are to avoid a balancing massively increased death rate, we are likely, in the short term, to use any energy source we can get our hands on. Clearly, in the longer term, world population must, in any event, rapidly stabilise and then drop to a sustainable level, whether by design or by force of circumstances.

    If this analysis is roughly correct and if your “wedge” approach is valid, it would be helpful if you could attempt an analysis of the national and international political measures that might be adopted to enable your recommended technical implementations. This would be more useful than “slagging off” the Republican Party and the Chinese.

    It occurs to me that there has been much rhetoric on the issue which, though possibly valid, doesn’t contribute to a solution. President Bush, for example, correctly states that unilateral US action on climate change, unmatched by India and China, may hurt Americans in the short term without achieving the desired purpose of avoiding dangerous climate change. Meanwhile, the growing Asian economies are correctly claiming that the West is responsible for most of the atmospheric CO2 increase so far and so argue that they must be allowed to continue to pollute until they have caught up or overtaken us. A lot of current Asian pollution arises because the West has outsourced a lot of its manufacturing base. In so doing, however, it has exported jobs and run up huge foreign debts, rendering itself less capable of reducing its remaining emissions. However, Asians, Africans and, to a lesser extent, South Americans have contibuted most to unsustainable population growth (thanks largely to Western-developed medical advances and The Green Revolution). Ironically, the Chinese are now attempting to “shut the stable door” (and being criticised for it by American liberals). Many “greens” demand that we be put on a war footing in order to deal with Climate Change yet seem remarkably unprepared to surrender themselves to the authoritarian regime which this might require. I suspect that an authoritarian approach might be needed, given the urgent need for action and the lack of consensus among the public about this need.

    Should one be more concerned about per capita CO2 emissions or emissions per land area (adjusted in some way to account for land productivity)? Should nations which absorb significant numbers of immigrants receive some compensating offsets? Equally, should nations which keep their citizens alive into an extended and unproductive old age be more heavily taxed?

    It would seem that the achievement of an international (even national) agreement on climate change measures is still a long way off and, if achieved, could be too late. However, were sufficient Western and any other like-minded nations to agree to the imposition of standard carbon emission taxes and to boycott all products from non signatory nations, we might have the beginning of a workable global strategy. I’m no economist or politician and the suggestion may be totally naive and impracticable. However, I hope it might induce responses from those more informed than I.