China's Commuter Olympics

Many countries will train their athletes in Japan and Korea before the Games, due to concerns about pollution and food quality in Beijing

When the 2008 Summer Olympics kick off this summer, China's new economic might will be on display. But whether Beijing's big coming-out party will be spoiled by the city's notoriously foul air is still a question. For now, at least, some Olympic teams aren't taking any chances and have decided to keep their athletes away from the city for as long as possible. Nearly two dozen countries are finalizing plans to fly their teams to Japan or Korea for several weeks of training before flying the athletes to China at the eleventh hour.

Already, teams from Finland, France, Germany, Britain, Sweden, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the U.S. have said they will hold pre-Olympics training camps in Japan, and more are expected to sign on in the coming months, according to Japanese Olympic Committee official Kenji Nishimura. In Korea, the story is the same. Ten countries, including Singapore, Switzerland, and New Zealand, have committed to sending athletes to Korea, while Bulgaria, Algeria, and four other countries are also scouting out sites.

Publicly, sports officials say they are just eager to take advantage of world-class facilities available in countries neighboring China, especially with the convenient air links to Beijing from Japan and Korea. But privately, some say they aren't taking any chances on China until the last minute.

Worried About Food and Pollution

Japanese officials say visiting delegations have voiced concerns about the potential health risks athletes face while training in China. "They won't say it out loud, but officials from those countries told us they were worried about the food and pollution in Beijing," says Tetsuyuki Imataki, an official in Kagawa prefecture, in southern Japan, which will host athletes from Finland and Denmark.

Germany's track and field team will have two cities—Shibetsu and Ashibetsu—on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido for its base. German officials "clearly told us from the outset" they would keep athletes outside China until the events begin, says Masataka Muro, a spokesman for the city of Shibetsu.

Since winning hosting duties for the Olympics, China has led a high-profile fight against pollution. Last August, for instance, Beijing removed one-third of its cars from the roads, but the measure failed to improve air quality markedly. A World Bank report released last year said China's rapid growth has led to more cars on the road, rising output at factories, and increasing demands on coal-fired power plants, which supply about 80% of the country's electricity. From 2000 to 2005, China failed to meet 10 of 13 targets for reducing pollution, and air pollution indicators have "remained constant or, in some instances, have increased." "China's cities still rank among the most polluted in the world," the report, titled Cost of Pollution in China, said.

A Cure for Jet Lag

Experts say they expect Beijing to go to extreme lengths to clear the air—for instance, shutting down factories and banning cars months before the Games. "They will do everything that is humanly possible, but there is no guarantee that would be enough," says Christine Loh, chief executive officer of Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong think tank that does extensive research on the environment. Despite the challenge, she thinks Beijing will pull it off in time.

Japan and Korea are also natural training alternatives to China because of their proximity to Beijing. Shaking off jet lag takes time: Generally speaking, athletes plan to spend a pre-competition day in Asia for every one-hour time difference between there and their home country. By basing themselves in Japan or Korea for the lead-up to the Games, athletes will be only one hour ahead of Beijing, a mere three-and-a-half-hour flight away. That's one reason why Britain's swim team chose Osaka. British athletes are also familiar with Japan's second-largest city, having stayed there during last year's International Swim Meet. Being in Osaka "will allow swimmers to train in the morning and fly to Beijing to compete in the afternoon," says British Olympic team spokesman Dave Richards.

Having athletes arrive just before the Olympic torch is lit is not without precedent. One example: Swedish athletes trained at home or in Cyprus until just before they were scheduled to compete in the 2004 Games in Athens. "We never have training camps in the city where the Olympics are held," says Swedish Olympic Committee spokesman Bkorn Folin. Sweden will have 150 athletes in Fukuoka, in southern Japan, after having considered Busan in southern Korea. (Athletes competing in canoeing, shooting, archery, equestrian, and sailing events will train in other places.) In 1968, several teams trained elsewhere in the final weeks before the Mexico City Summer Olympics because of health concerns.

Dress Rehearsal for 2016?

Eager for the economic boost, many local governments have dangled enticing perks to attract teams. Kagawa, for instance, went after the track and field teams of Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark by offering free transportation to and from Kansai International Airport, about four hours away, and a 75% discount on the fees to rent stadiums, gymnasiums, and other training facilities. So far, Finland and Denmark have said yes. In Korea, officials have offered accommodation packages at lower prices than in Japan.

For Japan, attracting more athletes also fits in with the country's own aspirations to host the Games. Tokyo has been investing heavily to beat Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, and Rome to host the 2016 Olympic Games.

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