An Israeli Jogger Gets First-hand Taste of Beijing Oppressive Smog

With the humidity and high pollution levels, how can marathon runners cope in these conditions?

BEIJING, China - It was a dark Friday morning. I pulled aside the curtain and peeked out at the view that locals have grown accustomed to. Low clouds obscured the skies. But when I went outside, I realized it wasn't clouds but a heavy, grayish yellow haze.

I thought about the hell that awaits the long-distance runners, especially the marathon runners. The organizing committee promised clear skies and fresh air, but on the morning of the opening ceremony, the single most important event of the biggest Olympics to date, the experience turned torturous.

I decided not to change my daily routine, which I had imported from Tel Aviv, and donned a track suit, a cap and sunglasses, and went for a morning run. I turned left down a narrow alley near my big, impressive, tacky Communist-style hotel. Such massive buildings are abundant in Moscow, too.

The alley was filthy. An unpleasant smell emanated from the public toilet. The night before, I had seen Chinese people of all ages, in their pajamas or underwear, sometimes with a towel around their shoulders or toilet paper in hand, go in and out of the lavatories. The stench of sewage mixed with the smell of fried cooking.

The so-called warden inspectors, who wear red ribbons on their shoulders, were knocking on every door and asking - or ordering - locals to hang flags. The entire country was readying for the event, which many of China's 1.3 billion residents believe will bring their nation the respect it deserves as a nuclear power and a rising economic giant.

The air stood still, and the heat was too much to bear. After a few minutes of running, the humidity became intolerable. I felt like I had overdosed on polluted air. I was told that a few weeks ago, it was several times worse. Local authorities limited transportation, took hundreds of thousands of cars off the road and planted thousands of trees between Beijing and the Gobi Desert. But this is no consolation. It's difficult for me to imagine how marathon runners will cope with these hostile conditions. Not for nothing did Haile Gebrselassie - the world marathon champion for the 10 and 15 kilometer races - decide not to take part in the competition after he realized what conditions he would face. As an asthma sufferer, he probably would have made a terrible result.

Red lights at junctions, usually a curse for runners who like to keep a steady pace, suddenly turned into a blessing with their respite. I planned on covering 14 to 15 kilometers in 75 minutes, but after covering five kilometers in 27 minutes, I realized I wouldn't make it. I decided to follow the advice of the voices in my head and end my nightmare as soon as possible, to start walking or even get a taxi.

But I persevered. The combination of the pollution, the 90-percent humidity and 35-degree heat almost killed me. On the way back to the hotel I saw a giant Olympic symbol with the slogan "one world, one dream." My one dream was to get back to my air-conditioned hotel room as soon as possible, and have a cold shower.