About those U.S. cyclists with gas masks

I don't mean to judge them as people. They did the right thing in apologizing. But in wearing protective masks inside the Beijing airport they were acting like jerks.


Photo by AFP

I grant: these are athletes at the peak of their conditioning. But they can't endure the air inside a building? While they're walking, rather than running or breathing hard? And for the few minutes it would take to get past all the photographers and into the privacy of their buses or cars?

Yeah, no kidding, the air in Beijing is worth complaining about. I've done so plenty, starting with an article I wrote more than two years ago, shortly after I arrived:

Many aspects of the new, improved China will be up for the world's inspection during the Olympic Games. But there is one little catch: the air. Unless something radical changes, I do not understand how athletic events can take place in air as dirty as Beijing's....

Everyone assumes that when the time comes for the Games, the authorities will do whatever they have to--closing factories, banning private traffic--to bring pollution down to an endurable level.... Still. If the marathon runners, or even the archers, can finish their events without clutching their chests and keeling over, the Chinese authorities will have accomplished something special.

But complaints should come in the context of realizing that Chinese officials, companies, and citizens actually have done quite a lot to try to cope with the problem (details here) -- and that it's sad in many ways, rather than contemptible, that the first view the world's TV audience will have of spiffed-up Beijing will be of the opaque gray-brown skies. Unless, of course, there's a big cleansing wind out of Mongolia right now.

It's embarrassing enough for the Chinese hosts that the air looks so bad. It's tasteless, prissy, and showboating for visitors to rub it in this way. (Again, I'm talking about wearing the masks inside, in front of cameras, while standing around -- not sensible precautions for training.) 

Why should I rub it in, now that the cyclists have done themselves and their country credit by apologizing? Just to set down an early marker that there is such a thing as dignified and considerate behavior -- even for athletes on the cusp of the competition of their lives, and even when coming to a country where there are ample legitimate grounds for complaint.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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