A festival of running
It was supposed to be a festival of running, a celebration of individual achievement beneath the blue skies of Beijing. Instead, the 2014 Beijing Marathon made headlines around the world for very different reasons, demonstrating not the city’s suitability as a place for staging international events, but one which is increasingly a city not fit for any habitable purpose.
I arrived on the Friday evening expecting the worst. By Saturday afternoon, my pollution based fears were well on the way to being realised. Walking out into the street after dinner, you could see the haze within only a dozen metres or so. It was like a misty morning, only it wasn’t morning, and what I could see, smell and taste, definitely wasn’t mist.
You don’t need an Air Quality Index when you can see the smog hanging in the air so clearly, but for what it’s worth, the P.M. 2.5 levels as measured by the US Embassy in Beijing, had been on a gradual but relentless increase from the low 100s to above 350 during the 24 hours I’d been in the city. It was clear the following morning was going to be a disaster. And so it turned out.
With the AQI nudging 450 early Sunday morning, there was nothing that would have convinced me of the sanity of running any distance in such hazardous circumstances. Yet plenty of runners did decide to go ahead and run. That the pollution was allegedly ‘better’ than the year before wasn’t much of a comfort to the thousands that massed in the early morning murk of Tiananmen Square. Conditions were nothing short of wretched, with visibility reduced to a few hundred hazy meters and many participants wearing masks of various degrees of seriousness in an attempt to prevent those harmful P.M 2.5 particles from entering their bodies.
The majority of runners, however, had decided against even this first line of protection. The joke online before the race was that with so many human vacuum cleaners hitting the streets, maybe the runners sucking the pollution up into their burning lungs would actually have the effect of cleaning the air up a little. But there was not even the suggestion of calling the race off in order to protect those that turned out.
Nor was there any hint of a refund being offered to those that had decided that Beijing was now no fit place to hold such an event. The air remained just as disgraceful at the end of the race than it was at the start, with the authorities only concession to the conditions being to promise more course volunteers to hand out sponges, as if this was the chief concern of those coughing and wheezing to their various finishing lines. Providing every participant with a mask to wear was obviously not something that the runners’ entry fee would stretch to.
Still, despite not running, my trip to Beijing wasn’t entirely a wasted one. I managed to get some decent pictures of the carnage, gas masks, costumes and all. Where Beijing and its marathon goes from here, however, is anybody’s guess. The latest in a growing line of international outrages at the extent of China’s environmental problem, the marathon debacle is another serious question against the city’s ability to successfully hold such events in the future.
Will the top athletes keep on coming? Will the sponsorship and interest levels remain? Foreign companies are already leaking talent to more agreeable cities as expats decide Beijing is simply not viable as a place to live. If the city loses it’s appeal as a place to hold such events in the future, what hope does it have of remain relevant as an international city?
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