- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2008

SINGAPORE — IOC president Jacques Rogge said pollution in Beijing will not endanger the health of athletes, although their Olympic performance might suffer.

“The health of the athletes is absolutely not in any danger,” Rogge said yesterday. “It might be that some will have to have a slightly reduced performance, but nothing will harm the health of the athletes. The IOC will take care of that.”

Speaking on a visit to Singapore, Rogge said he saw no momentum toward boycotts of the Olympics over political issues, and was unhappy with protests during the torch relay but accepted people’s right to demonstrate.

Rogge was asked to comment on the decision by Haile Gebrselassie, the world’s greatest distance runner, not to run the men’s marathon in Beijing because of worries over pollution.

“Haile Gebrselassie is arguably the best long-distance runner of the present generation,” Rogge said, adding however, the runner is “slightly asthmatic.”

Rogge was not ruling out the possibility that Gebrselassie could change his mind nearer to the date.

“He decided so far — I’m saying so far because we don’t know how things will evolve — not to participate in the marathon,” he said. “I would say, wait and see … when he sees the data that we are providing for them.”

Rogge had previously said outdoor events in August’s games could be delayed if the air quality was too poor.

Pollution — in addition to the violence in Tibet and other human rights issues — had been a major concern for China and the International Olympic Committee in the leadup to the Aug. 8-24 Olympics. Some athletes are reportedly considering wearing masks to ward off the bad air in Beijing, while many will delay their arrival in China’s capital until the last possible moment.

The Tibet protests and other human rights issues had led activists to call for boycotts of the Beijing Olympics, and some high-ranking political leaders — including French President Nicolas Sarkozy — had said they may boycott the opening ceremony.

“We are not seeing a real momentum on boycotts by governments,” Rogge said. “There are talks about the potential boycotts of the opening ceremony. It is up to the heads of government to decide if they want to come to Beijing or not.”

The early stages of the torch relay had attracted protests by activists, mostly concerned with Tibetan sovereignty, and more were expected as it traveled through western Europe and the United States.

“We are definitely not happy with the protests,” Rogge said. “If people want to protest, we are for the freedom of speech and expression. They can protest as long as it is not violent.”

Former pole vaulting great and IOC executive board member Sergei Bubka warned against any move toward a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

Bubka cautioned against any prevention of athlete participation, speaking from his personal experience of 1984 when the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics as payback for the United States doing the same at the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

“It was my dream to win a medal and it was postponed,” said Ukrainian Bubka, who repeatedly broke the pole vault world record and went on to win his Olympic gold in 1988.

Rogge said the IOC executive committee would meet April 10 to examine the latest report by human rights group Amnesty International, which was critical of China’s lack of progress on such issues as detention without trial, repression of human right activists and Internet censorship.

Rogge and Bubka traveled to Singapore to observe preparations for the first Youth Olympic Games to be held there in 2010. The Youth Games will feature about 3,200 athletes aged 14 to 18 competing in 26 sports.

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