Four United States cyclists wore face masks last week as they arrived at an airport to take part in the Olympic Games, now under way in Beijing, China. A Portuguese cyclist has withdrawn from the competition for fear of damaging his health because of the heavy air and water pollution in the region. Others in a variety of sports are considering doing likewise.
The four Americans later apologized, probably under pressure, to Chinese officials for their masked entry into the Olympic region, but they should not have. Whether they wore the facial covers to demonstrate their concern about the conditions in the Chinese capital or did so out of genuine fear for their health is not the issue here.
The major collective villain is the Chinese government, Chinese Olympic leaders and all their aides for not measuring up to the many promises they made when they were awarded the 2008 Games. At the time of the announcement that Beijing would host the 2008 spectacle, there was one layer of promises after another about how the vast nation would work toward improving human rights for its citizens, providing gleaming facilities and making sure that the air, water and food offered to international athletes and officials would be pure and healthful.
Along with the oppressive air conditions that refuse to go away despite a wide range of special actions by China, the human rights situation among 1.3 billion people has been a disgrace. The trouble over Tibet and its independence is the latest key focal point. The government insists it has made outstanding progress in this field and will continue that process. Those close to the scene, with years of experience in the region, almost laugh as they respond.
Olympians with respiratory problems, such as asthma, are quite fearful of what will happen to them as they work out and compete in the smoggy, stifling Beijing atmosphere. The water consumed by visitors will be monitored carefully. Some water sources are considered primitive and laden with bacteria. Can that water be adequately treated to reduce the risk to visitors?
Elizabeth Economy, who meets frequently with Chinese environmental officials, said orders about pollution usually lose their impact by the time they reach local officials.
"They are endemically corrupt. Collusion among local governments and factory managers is the norm," she said. "Half the money invested in environmental protection research is diverted to other things unrelated to environmental protection."
Steven Andrews, a Washington-based environmental consultant, said that after a review of Beijing's preparations for cleaning the air during the Olympics, the Chinese simply relocated air monitoring stations to achieve cleaner results.
The Chinese deny that, of course.
But they cannot deny that they went on record so enthusiastically and cheerfully about all the major actions they would take to justify their hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games and have failed miserably to measure up to their promises.
It amounted to a massive con job that now has a lot of chickens coming home to roost for this would-be world power.