At the Asian Games, runners’ woes highlight air pollution in Jakarta

Athletes competing in the just concluded Asian Games in Jakarta suffered from some of the worst air quality in a city hosting a major sports event in recent years.

Organisers of the recently concluded Asian Games in Indonesia had been braced for the worst-case scenario: forest fires flaring up and shrouding Palembang, one of the host cities, in a thick, choking haze.

Sure enough, air quality problems surfaced — but not in Palembang. Instead, it was in Jakarta, the other host city, some 430 kilometers (270 miles) away, where air pollution and high temperatures combined to make life miserable for some of the athletes taking part in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

“The race was so difficult — the hot weather, humidity, and not just the humidity but the pollution,” Indonesian racewalker Hendro Yap said after recovering from collapsing at the end of the men’s 50-kilometer event.

Hendro’s time of 4:32:20 was the slowest in two decades in the Asian Games; the fact that he was only one of five athletes to finish the race under those conditions, he said, was “a miracle.”

“Racing here is not easy. This is Indonesia,” he said. “This is a miracle for me I can finish. This is a miracle.”

He also told The Jakarta Post that he “could strongly feel the air pollution” during the race. The U.S. Embassy’s air monitoring station in Central Jakarta that day recorded high concentrations of PM2.5, a fine particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter that is deemed harmful to human health.

The embassy recorded PM 2.5 levels of 80 micrograms per cubic meter during the Aug. 30 race — eight times higher than the “hazardous” threshold defined by the World Health Organization.

‘Hard to breathe’

Hendro wasn’t the only Asian Games athletes hit by the air quality in Jakarta. 2017 world champion Rose Chelimo of Bahrain said the heat and air pollution in Jakarta affected her performance in the women’s marathon on Aug. 26, to the point that she almost gave up.

“I felt something in my throat too. The air here, you feel like it’s hard to breathe,” the 29-year-old told AFP.

While Chelimo won the race, her time of 2:34:51 was a good 10 minutes off her personal best. It was also seven minutes slower than her performances at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London, where she won in 2:27:11, and at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she finished eighth in 2:27:36.

Chelimo’s performance in Jakarta has been linked to the city’s toxic air. Concentrations of PM10 particles, which are smaller than 10 microns in diameter, in the capital during the Asian Games averaged 60 to 70 micrograms per cubic meter, according to organisers. For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in PM10, the performance of female marathon runners can be expected to decrease by 1.4 per cent, according to a 2010 study.

Daniel Kass, senior vice president for environmental health at the global health nonprofit Vital Strategies, said that given the air quality during the race, Chelimo’s time was to be expected.

“So you can see what happened in Jakarta, about 60 micrograms per cubic meter of PM10,” he told Mongabay. “Once you get into 5, 6 or 7 times that formula, you’re talking about 10 per cent performance reduction.”

The level of toxic pollutants is certainly high enough that it can influence the performance [of athletes competing in the Asian Games].

Lauri Myllyvirta, senior global campaigner for coal and air pollution, Greenpeace

Toxic pollutants

Athletes are especially prone to the health impacts of air pollution because they breathe up to 20 times more than regular people during training and competition. This is especially true for marathon runners like Chelimo, who inhale and exhale about the same volume of air during a race as a sedentary person would over the course of two full days.

Athletes also inhale deeply, further increasing their exposure to toxic pollutants. And without an adequate oxygen supply, athletes cannot reach peak performance.

“The level of toxic pollutants is certainly high enough that it can influence the performance [of athletes competing in the Asian Games],” Greenpeace senior global campaigner for coal and air pollution Lauri Myllyvirta told Mongabay.

Throughout the Games, which ran from Aug. 18 to Sept. 2, Jakarta had average PM2.5 level of 38 micrograms per cubic meter, nearly four time the WHO limit, according to Greenpeace figures. At several points, including during the men’s racewalk event, the PM2.5 level exceeded 75 micrograms per cubic meter, and sometimes went past 100 micrograms per cubic meter.

As poor as Jakarta’s air quality was, it could have been much worse. The city administration had in the weeks before the games imposed vehicle restrictions that effectively cut the number of cars on key streets by half.

Jakarta’s average PM2.5 level throughout 2018 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter, according to a global PM2.5 dataset published by Dalhousie University in Canada. This is higher than any other city hosting a major sports event since 2011, with the exception of Beijing in 2015.

The Chinese capital’s average PM2.5 level that year was 88 micrograms per cubic meter. Ahead of its hosting of the 2015 IAAF World Championships, city officials took drastic measures to clean the air by closing down factories and restricting vehicles, sending the PM2.5 level far below Jakarta’s average.

That means the Asian Games in Jakarta were likely the most polluted major sports event held anywhere since 2010, when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games and Johannesburg hosted the FIFA World Cup, according to Greenpeace’s Myllyvirta. He described running a race in Jakarta as “definitely an extreme sport” due to the city’s hazardous air.

Olympic dreams

That hasn’t fazed officials in Jakarta, however, who now want to host the biggest prize of all: the 2032 Olympic Games.

Indeed, the organisers, and the president in particular, were widely praised for what was a largely successful Asian Games with no major snafus to speak of, according to Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu. But the higher profile of the Olympics should compel the government to do more about tackling air pollution, he said.

“Amid the euphoria of us becoming the host of this major sport event, we have to push the government to find real solutions on air pollution,” Bondan said in a press release. “The testimonies of these athletes are harsh criticisms for Indonesia as a host.”

The government spent some 30 trillion rupiah ($2 billion) preparing for the Asian Games, much of the funds going toward infrastructure such as stadium upgrades and the athletes’ village. But the government failed to provide clean air, one of the most important things athletes need, according to Margaretha Quina, head of environmental pollution at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL).

“The Asian Games is the right momentum for the Indonesian government to show its seriousness and commitment in building a healthy Indonesia,” she said.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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