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Beijing Races to Clear Its Skies Before the Olympics

With less than 200 days to go before the Beijing Olympics, China's capital appears on schedule to finish work on its new hotels, stadiums and subway lines. But Beijing faces an uphill fight to solve its notorious air pollution problem by August, and the government is preparing to order traffic off the streets to try to keep skies blue.

Du Shaozhong, deputy director of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau, admits that the city still has a long way to go to clear the air.

"We're facing up to the fact that Beijing's air quality really needs improvement. But we can definitely say that in recent years, Beijing's air quality has constantly gotten better," Du says.


Beijing has spent nearly $14 billion over the past decade to fight air pollution, Du says. The city met its clean air targets on 245 days last year, compared with 177 days in 2000.

Last summer, Du adds, the city conducted a dress rehearsal for the Olympic Games. It ordered one-third of the city's 3 million cars off the streets, which significantly reduced pollution.

"This was also a test of the public's support for traffic controls during the Olympics. Beijing residents are willing to make this effort for the sake of better air quality," Du says.

David Streets, a senior scientist at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, has studied Beijing's air pollution. He says beating it will require cooperation from other parts of North China.

His organization's research shows that at ground level, concentrations of pollutants from provinces close to Beijing are significant.


Already, construction sites and factories in Beijing are preparing to stop work ahead of the Olympics.

In a worst-case scenario, some Olympic events may have to be put off for a day or two until the pollution clears. Jill Geer is director of communications for USA Track and Field, a national governing body. She says athletes are preparing, at least mentally, for some bad air.

"We're very confident that the Chinese will take the measures necessary to make sure that the air is clear by the time the Olympic Games roll around. That said, we're working with our athletes to make sure they know they need to train for possible heat and pollution," Geer says.

The U.S. track team will train in China ahead of the games, in the northeastern city of Dalian, where the air is cleaner. But Geer says that's standard procedure, and not related to the pollution. She adds that the U.S. team has always thrived in adverse conditions, including four years ago, in the intense heat of Athens.

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