Never mind the breathing, it’s the Olympics

I can’t quite believe what I read today, so let me take a deep breath and try this on for size. Australian track and field athletes are apparently planning to skip the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games. Now, boycotts of Beijing 2008 have been suggested by many activists, and some politicians have decided not to attend to make a statement. But our boycott is because of … wait for it … smog. That’s right. Smog.

Now, sure – it’s an issue, because Beijing is a horribly polluted city. I’ve been there a few times, and as an asthmatic, I can verify thanks to numerous unpleasant incidents that the air quality is appalling. And it’s not surprising, given that any trip requires sitting in traffic jams on one of the massive ring roads for between 30 and 90 minutes. Even the total cessation of heavy industry is unlikely to have made much of a difference in the short time it’s been undertaken. Perhaps if they’d shut the entire city of Beijing down within moments of winning the bid, there’s a chance the air might have cleaned up in time for the Games. But I doubt it.

And it’s not just the smog, folks. Last time I went to the Forbidden City I was accosted by a threat that the ancient Chinese emperors certainly wouldn’t have anticipated – sandstorms. Yes, that’s right – in the middle of a major international city, you get sand blowing into your face from the Gobi Desert, which, thanks to environmental mismanagement, encroaches a little more on the city every year. Let’s just say it’s a unique tourist experience.

In terms of athlete well-being, it’s a terrible place to have the Olympics, and at a terrible time. Because they want to start the event on the auspicious (and admittedly quite cool) 8/8/08, it’ll be swelteringly hot. I was there in June last year, and the humidity was so intense that after 10 minutes of walking in the sun and I sweated enough to make a major contribution to the diving pool.

And if that wasn’t enough, it’s the rainy season. The plan to avoid rain, apparently, is to use advanced technology to prevent rainclouds from forming. Having been soundly drenched last year, all I can say is that anything short of a giant, city-wide umbrella is unlikely to do much.

China would have been far wiser to choose Shanghai, where sea breezes keep the temperature down. But the Communist Party has never much trusted it, with its Western heritage and free-wheeling capitalist ways. And it doesn’t contain Tiananmen Square or a giant portrait of Mao. Which I view as points in Shanghai’s favour – but if you want to symbolise China’s immense power in its moment on the world stage, Beijing is the only choice.

But come on. The time to object to the choice of Beijing was when they took the vote. Everyone’s in the same boat for the Games (well, everyone except Sally Robbins, thankfully), and the right response at this point is to grin and bear it. If we don’t have our athletes there for the Opening Ceremony, we’ll look like massive wusses. The other countries will laugh at us, and kick even more sand in our faces than Beijing’s weather will for being wimps. When they finally line up to compete, everyone will be asking the poor dear Australians if they’d like a tissue because they’re carrying a light sniffle. What a way to trade away your psychological advantage.

I’d tell our athletes to soldier on with Codral, but that would probably get them banned. But for goodness’ sake. I know they’ve been preparing for four years for this, but if they have a runny nose or a hacking cough on the day, they’ll just have to put up with it.

But what’s most unimpressive about the smog boycott is that, well, it’s for smog. Of all the valid reasons to pull our athletes from Beijing 2008, potential respiratory ailments would have to be the most pathetic. We wouldn’t dream of making a political statement because of Tibet, or the overuse of the death penalty, or the almost complete lack of free speech in China – goodness no. Australia has a proud history of putting such irrelevant concerns as human rights aside when there are gold medals at stake. We’re one of very few countries never to have missed a Games. And now, finally, we intend to tarnish that record, and why? Because we think medals could be are at stake. Well, at least we’re consistent.

If Australia’s full team doesn’t march out at the Opening Ceremony, I for one will be extremely unimpressed. Admittedly, I find most Opening Ceremonies unimpressive – which perhaps has something to do with the combination of crappy dancing, clunky symbolism, and the commentary of Bruce McAvaney. But the point remains. The athletes are representing Australia. And we would never ask our sportspeople to focus on winning at all cost, without any consideration for the spirit of the game. Well, except our cricketers. And our tennis players. And – actually, on second thought, let’s boycott the entire Games Village, and get the RAAF to drop our athletes directly off at the stadium for their event, and airlift them out of there immediately afterwards. After all, there’s gold medals at stake.

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