Breathe deeply; this air may not last

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So, it turns out that BOCOG was right. Actually righter than right.

Not only has the Chinese organizing committee’s prediction that the air would be fine for the Olympics been fulfilled. Its original request that the Games start on August 15 – turned down by the International Olympic Committee – has been vindicated.

It all comes down to the weather, which is often muggy and smoggy and stiflingly hot until the end of August. But that was too late to begin the Olympics, partly because the US tennis Open begins on August 25, so BOCOG had to settle for August 8.

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The first week of the Games was indeed muggy and hot, and although the official figures said pollution was within acceptable bounds, visibility wasn’t great. The government’s definition of what it calls a “blue sky day” is a day when the Air Pollution Index is below 100. My definition of a “blue sky day” is a day when you can see the clouds through the pollution.

Then we had a torrential rainfall, and since Friday August 15th , when BOCOG originally wanted to open the Olympics, the weather has been fabulous. Real blue sky. From my bedroom window I have seen hills on the horizon that I had never seen since I moved to China two years ago. I have seen the moon in the night sky, with light clouds scudding over it. That was a first for me in Beijing.

Du Shaozhong, deputy head of Beijing’s Environmental Protection Bureau, acknowledged at a press conference today that this sort of air quality “would have been impossible” without the draconian measures the government imposed for the Olympics period. It has taken two million cars off the roads, stopped all construction in the city and closed down polluting factories within a 70 mile radius of the capital, among other steps.

He was responding to a Chinese journalist’s question; not surprising, because only four Western reporters bothered to turn up. When the pollution was awful, just before the Games, Mr. Du’s appearances drew large crowds of foreign journalists asking legitimately snarky questions. Now that the air looks fine, nobody goes to hear him say why.

He also noted that Beijingers “hope that hosting the Olympics will help build Beijing into a livable city,” but he made no promises about air quality once the Games are over, the foreigners have left, and everything goes back to normal.

Friends visiting Beijing for the Olympics have asked me what all the pollution fuss is about; as far as they can tell, the capital’s air is just fine.

I’ve invited them to come back in October.

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