Running through the murk

2008-07-19 00:00

Now you see it … now you don’t. That proved to be an amazing contrast during last week’s exploration of the Beijing Olympic site.

Right in the middle of the Olympic area is a massive tower with six diamond-shaped, glass-fronted floors. The 230-metre tower will be used by the international broadcasters to beam the Olympics to billions of viewers around the world. It is a beacon to the Olympic venues from many kilometres away — on a clear day. In contrast, pollution blurs any view of the top from only 300 metres away on a smoggy day.

This is one major variable facing the 150-strong Team SA as they strive for medals in the 29th Olympic Games commencing on August 8. It is the long endurance events such as cycling, walking and marathoning that will most be affected by the pollution. There has even been talk of postponing events if there is excessive pollution on the day. Who will take that decision, and by what standards, is not clear, but the practical problems of delaying the erection of barriers, the closing of roads and swopping marathon days in a city of four million people will make interesting viewing.

My four days in Beijing allowed me the pleasure and honour of joining the measurement team for both the marathon and walk course, and to sample the preparations four weeks before the opening ceremony.

Involvement in similar measurements leaves little doubt that this is the fastest marathon course of the past four Olympics. Atlanta had substantial climbs to the turn point before plummeting down the traditional 10 km Peach Tree route to finish in the stadium where Josiah Thugwane earned his gold medal. The Sydney route wound from the heights of Centennial Park down towards the harbour then climbed to the Olympic Stadium, while Athens covered the historic course from the plains of Marathon over the hilly passes to drop down into the original 1896 stadium. All three were hot-weather races, with Athens the hottest and most humid and using an afternoon start.

The main area of the Beijing Olympics facilities has been designed with traditional Chinese symmetry: the centreline of the massive public area between the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube swimming pool aligns with the infamous Tiananmen Square. The walk race laps are on either side of the line, while the marathon course starts midway on the eastern side of Tiananmen Square. It is a pancake-flat course with a score of corners and long, multi-lane boulevards linking a handful of scenic spots such as the Temple of Heaven and the Peking University campus.

Returning towards Tiananmen Square along the second of the long arteries that normally take Beijing’s traffic, a minor kink will take runners along a tram-railed, purpose-built area showing the progression of Chinese history. Tiananmen Square leads to the Forbidden City gate where Mao’s picture overlooks the 11 km mark, and an even wider road that will dwarf the field of athletes.

Although the first third is lined with historic landmarks, there are no obstacles or challenges to separate the real contenders: their concentration will be firmly fixed on each other as they face a straight, unforgiving, five-kilometre-stretch to the 20 km mark.

With nine kilometres remaining, runners return to more unprotected exposure to the sun on expansive dual carriageways with a minor bridge-avoiding dip and rise that may separate the strong from the weak. That broadcast tower will seem an unreachable indicator on the skyline over the final three kilometres towards the stadium.

In ideal conditions, the runners should complete the course in less than two hours and six minutes, but in the hot, humid summer the winning time is more likely to be 2:10 or more, depending partly on the pollution.

A faster time may be possible in polluted conditions rather than under blue skies. While pollution may increase humidity, it has a protective factor that became apparent last Saturday when the measurement team were burnt lobster-red in the sun.

Hendrick Ramaala is training at high altitude and in high temperatures in Albuquerque, New Mexico, before heading to Beijing. With the men’s marathon scheduled for the morning of the final day, both he and Norman Dlomo will want to strike a balance between avoiding the humidity and pollution and the need to recover fully from intercontinental travel before taking on the best in the world over this 42,2 km course.

I foresee this being edge-of-the-seat viewing, with the medals only being determined in the final two kilometres.

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