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Friday, March 12, 2004


I Can See Clearly Now the Smog Has Gone

Last month (February 8), an article in The Sunday Times of London suggested that the British Olympic Association is considering giving its athletes special breathing devices to use during the Athens Olympiad to protect them from the city’s pollution. The article in question, “Olympic Athletes May Use Air Filters,” was written by Andrew White and Jonathan Leake and may be a perfect example of why two minds are not necessarily better than one. I write this because even though it’s an eye-catching story and despite Greece’s poor environmental record over the years, experts actually indicate that this claim is so wide of the mark that it’s the equivalent of a javelin landing on the running track instead of within sector lines.

The main problem is that the two journalists have taken a potentially significant issue and trivialized it with clichés and generalizations, and further undermined their piece by turning it into a virtual 800-word advertisement for the particular “breathing device” they mention. The article’s main assertions are that:

  • Many coaches fear that athletic performance during the Athens Olympics will be severely affected by toxins in the air.
  • Athens is one of the world’s dirtiest cities.
  • Air quality in Athens is worse in the summer because ozone levels are higher.

Like any good 110m hurdler, I will try to tackle one obstacle at a time. First of all, the claim that “many coaches have become worried at the impact of pollutants in the Greek capital” is, unfortunately, not followed by any mention of who these coaches are, let alone a direct quote from them. Nevertheless, the assertion is worth examining because nowadays the amount of world records broken during a major sporting event often determines how successful it’s been. In search of professional opinions, therefore, I spoke to two coaches who should know all about the rigors of training and competing in Athens.

Odysseas Papatolês, head coach of the Greek track team, was indignant: ”There won’t be any problems. The track events will take place in the evening when it is cooler. There will be strict traffic restrictions around the city. The games will be a success and claims about athletes having problems with pollution have been exaggerated beyond belief. First, they tried to make an issue of the security concerns, now that’s been looked after, they’re looking for other issues to attack us over,” he concluded. His views were echoed by Giôrgos Kalovelonês, head coach of the Greek tennis team, who put any feelings of persecution aside and remarked: “As a player, I took part in tournaments in the center of Athens, underneath the Acropolis, and I never had a problem. Now I’m a coach, I still don’t have any concerns about my players competing in Athens.”

Admittedly, there may be case for bias here, but these two coaches are well aware of the conditions in Athens, and their athletes will be under intense pressure to perform before a home crowd. Maybe, however, the Sunday Times is on safer ground with its assertion that Athens’s place on the podium is guaranteed when it comes to handing out medals for most polluted cities. Anyone who has lived in or merely visited Athens over the last 30 years will certainly be able to identify with this fact. A combination of human indifference (environmentally unregulated industry and indefensibly frequent use of private vehicles) combined with nature’s design — Athens is surrounded by mountains and the sea — means that smog has become as much a part of the city’s landscape as the Kallimarmaro (Panathenaic) Stadium, venue of the first modern Olympics in 1896.

For many years, this environmental cancer was dismissed with a communal shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps it’s indicative of the city’s attitude that in a film of the legendary Greek comic actor Thanasês Veggos, made during the Seventies, his character inhales fumes from a bus and, facing the camera with a blackened face, declares: “Ahhh…Athens.” But the Athens of 2004 is somewhat of a different story. It’s by no means a clean city but, then again, which major city can really claim that title? Certainly not Los Angeles, Seoul, or Atlanta, which all held Olympic games in the last 20 years. The Greek capital is attempting to transform itself, and the effort being made to ensure the Olympics take place in a (relatively) uncontaminated environment is substantial.

The Sunday Times journalists, however, wrote that the city was ranked the dirtiest capital in the European Union in 2002. Unfortunately, they fail to mention who was responsible for this ranking and what criteria were used. Litter in the streets (another of Athens’s problems) is a completely different issue from pollution in the air when it comes to athletes’ not being able to perform and even developing breathing difficulties. This oversight aside, surely the question White and Leake should have asked themselves was: “If things are so bad, what have the Greeks done about it?”

Regrettably, they don’t seem to have considered it at all. I contacted the Athens 2004 Olympic Committee (ATHOC), however, to find out what they thought about the problem. Although they can’t deny that works for the Olympics have generated substantial amounts of dirt and dust around Athens, especially over the last year, organizers insist that the games will be conducted in a clean and healthy environment. They believe, indeed, that, in conjunction with the Greek ministry of the environment and public works, they’ve set in place stringent enough measures to ensure that pollution will not be an issue during the games. They were unlikely to admit to anything to the contrary, naturally, but it’s difficult to argue with the amount of work done in the build-up to the games, which, among other goals, seeks to provide environmentally friendly surroundings for visitors and athletes.

Over the last few years, for example, there’s been a radical restructuring of the transportation system throughout Attica. This includes almost five miles of new metro lines, nearly 15 miles of trams, and 20 miles of suburban railways. All spectators, Olympic personnel, and volunteers — an estimated 600,000 people each day — will use public transport, including buses powered by natural gas and the metro system, to travel to and from Olympic facilities. Olympic officials, meanwhile, will be transported around the city in cars powered by electricity. Organizers are also planting 290,000 new trees and are involved in various recycling projects. They argue that these measures have already helped to reduce pollution; according to their figures, carbon-monoxide emissions in Athens, for example, have fallen by over 20 percent since works for the games began.

Of course, the improvements made to Athens’s infrastructure are welcome and essential but they’re also a double-edged sword to some extent. For example, the Attikê Odos, the new highway linking Eleutherios Venizelos Airport with Eleusina and various parts of Athens, has helped lighten the load on the capital’s congested main arteries, but it has also brought an environmental burden with it. Figures just released by the Athens Observatory show that areas of the city through which the road passes have become substantially more polluted since the highway was completed. Levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the suburb of Agia Paraskeuê, for instance, have increased by 10 percent and are now nearing the permitted limits prescribed by the European Commission (EC).

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that it’s a two-week period this August that most people will be concerned with, including the apparently fretful trainers mentioned by the Sunday Times. That’s why ATHOC is enforcing strict traffic measures during this period. All deliveries, for example, will be conducted during the early hours of the morning, when there are no competitions taking place: a system that worked to great effect during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In addition, apart from official efforts to tackle pollution, there are some seasonal factors to take into account, which White and Leake also seem to have completely overlooked.

One would be hard put to find an Athenian who will say that, with factories shut down and most Athenians returning to their villages or islands, pollution is a problem in the city during August. In fact, any resident of the Greek capital knows that this is the best month to be in it, as roads are empty and the normally overcrowded metropolis becomes a peaceful haven. This was a key factor in deciding to hold the games in August. And there is another seasonal element to take into account: the weather. While August may well be one of the hottest months of the year in Greece, it’s also one of the windiest. The meltemi winds, which sweep over the country, often help to disperse any smog left sitting over the Attica basin. In fact, during test events last August, winds were so strong that the rowing and canoeing competitions at the Schinias Olympic center near Marathon were disrupted.

And what of the claim that “air quality is worse in the summer because sunlight is a key component in the production of ozone”? Nobody can dispute that ozone pollution, or summertime smog, is formed by nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, mostly produced by road traffic, interacting in sunlight. Yet the Sunday Times article does not give any indication of what these levels are in Athens. It’s a shame because they certainly make for interesting reading. Michaêl Petrakês, senior researcher at the Institute of Environmental Research and Sustainable Development at the Athens Observatory, explained: “Ozone readings in Athens can reach increased levels during summer due to extra sunlight but only in certain places and certain times. In fact, looking back at previous records for ozone in Athens during August, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will be a problem. Last summer, for example, ozone levels in London reached 250 micrograms per cubic meter whereas Athens peaked at 180.”

It’s noteworthy that the European Environmental Agency says that levels of ground ozone above 180 micrograms per cubic meter of air, averaged over one hour, are thought to have adverse effects on the health of anyone who is sensitive to the pollutant. Still, Mr. Petrakês insists that there is no reason to worry: “Athens has a pollution problem, but it’s no worse than most other European cities. Some of the readings relating to air quality are poor but to suggest athletes might suffer or will be dropping like flies is a complete exaggeration. In fact, according to official statistics, they would have more of a problem competing in Manchester or London.”

Although his last remark is clearly a barb aimed at British accusers, it certainly helps put the matter into context. London, for example, is currently bidding to hold the 2012 Olympics, but smog levels broke health limits recommended by the EC (120 micrograms per cubic meter) at 76 out of 80 government monitoring sites around the UK in August 2003. One assumes, however, that British athletes continued to compete and train at the time without the help of breathing devices. Meanwhile, air pollution readings in Beijing, which is hosting the 2008 Olympic Games, are normally at least double those of Athens.

This doesn’t exonerate Athens; neither does it take away from the fact that ATHOC will need to be on top of its game to contend with this problem. Breathing apparatuses aside, there are a few basic questions that need to be asked, which the Sunday Times failed to do. Is Athens a dirty city? Yes, undoubtedly. Is anything being done to clean it up for the Olympics? Yes, a great deal of work, which will continue until August 13. Will pollution be a problem for athletes during the Olympics? According to all indications, no. What will happen to the levels of pollution in Athens after all the coaches, athletes, officials, and spectators have gone home is another matter, of course, but — whatever happens — journalists will not be able to address it with clichés and generalizations.

Nick Malkoutzis is a freelance journalist who divides his time between London and Athens working for various organizations, including the BBC.
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