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China's Emergency Pollution Plan

Olympics Emergency Air Plan: Is Wearing a Mask an Insult?

Traffic restrictions started in Beijing over the weekend in a frantic effort to try and improve the city's air quality before the start of the Games. By only allowing vehicles with odd-numbered license plates into the city on alternating days with evens, officials hope the halving of traffic will take 60 percent of the city's 3.3 million cars off the roads and reduce emissions by two-thirds.

Though the atmospheric throat-clearing is all about getting gussied up for company, locals are loving the effect. One mom said, "it's great — today there are far fewer cars on the road and the air quality is so nice. This is good for the children." With 1,000 new cars hitting Beijing streets every day the measures are herculean in one of the world's most congested cities.

Not limited to cars, construction and factories have also been quashed, making it clear that the bid for cleaner air is wholly temporary — once the rings come down, it's business as usual. For now, an extra 4 million people are expected to smush their way onto public transportation — claustrophobes, stay out of China.

Though the plan seems to be helping a little, all of this effort still might not be enough — and the stars of the show, the athletes, are grappling with a crisis of manners over performance. To see how,


The US Olympic Committee is distributing an ultrasecret, high-tech mask to all of its 600 Olympians, sparking questions of propriety. If athletes strap on the masks, especially to high-profile events like the opening ceremonies, they are saying to their hosts, "you stink."

Though the Chinese themselves have used masks to protect their lungs, do the athletes have an obligation to suck it up and suffer, to avoid broadcasting to all that the air in China, ahem, sucks? The British team also has a mask — and theirs can be worn during competition, which of course brings up all kinds of fairness questions.

Manners aside, I'm struck by the larger implication that a giant country exists on our planet where the air isn't fit to breathe. And if the world was a restaurant, just because you pick the nonsmoking section, doesn't mean you won't leave smelling like a rat.

Should athletes wear the masks to make a broader ecological point? Will keeping silent do more harm in the long-run, than good?


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