Thursday, September 4, 2008

olympics round-up: impressions of air quality

Photo by Lila Buckley

In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, Beijing's air quality was constantly in the news; questions about whether Beijing would meet its air quality targets, whether events would need to be postponed, and whether the pollution would affect athletes' performances seemed to be the constant refrain of Western conversations about the upcoming Games. In early July, the New York Times cited air quality as one of two primary remaining uncertainties about the preparations.

As the Games approached, these concerns seemed to be entirely validated. Two weeks prior to the Games, Beijing's air pollution exceeded the Olympic standard for four straight days; even the last few days before the opening ceremony were dangerously close to the limit.

Over the first few days of the Games, though, as the API bounced up and down, we began to see mixed reviews about the quality and the impacts. At that time, I predicted a stalemate, imagining that the end result would be the Chinese claiming success with regard to air quality and foreigners grudging that it still wasn't good enough. (Interesting side note here: as I have indicated, the average API during the Olympics was 49; before the Games started, beijingairblog specifically quoted an expert stating that an API of 50 was still "very unhealthy," claiming that only an average API of 25 would be "acceptable for Olympic competition.")

But then, by the second week of the Olympics, a funny - and unexpected - thing happened. The stalemate I predicted never really happened, because Beijing's air quality critics backed down. By August 13th, the New York Times called it "the great air pollution scare," dubbing it "the Y2K computer scare — a nonevent." On the 18th, danwei titled a blog post "Pollution wussies go quiet." Later, DH commented on my blog:
Yo Vance, Gotta tell you that after the start of the games I heard almost NOTHING about air quality from any of the major news sources. Seems like maybe they just decided it wasn't a story anymore. Plus none of the athletes wore those Batman-style gasmasks so there may have been no real "story" to cover...
By the end of the Games, air pollution was a non-issue, eclipsed by so many other stories of the Olympics. Air quality, which seemed so dominant a concern before the Games happened, was barely even mentioned in many of the summary write-ups of the Games that appeared shortly after the closing ceremony. (For example here, here, here, and here.)

However, while Beijing's air quality may no longer be making many headlines abroad, the exact opposite is true here in China. But this is a topic for a separate post...

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