BEIJING: Defending Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini doubts pollution will be a major problem at the Beijing Olympics.
Then again, the Italian said he's never run in a city as polluted as the Chinese capital.
"The pollution could affect the results, but I believe heat and humidity will have a bigger effect," Baldini said Thursday in Beijing during a three-day visit to look at the marathon course.
Chinese organizers have promised clean air for the Olympics, shutting chemical plants and foundries while banning construction and half of the city's 3.3 million vehicles in the days leading up to the Aug. 8 opening ceremony.
On Thursday, however, thick smog blanketed the city, causing skyscrapers a kilometer (half mile) away to disappear behind a gray haze.
"I haven't ever run in a similar polluted situation," the Italian said. "I really haven't seen such a polluted sky anywhere else. ... Other places where the sky is blue, maybe there is pollution, but you can't see it. Here you see it, you sense it."
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge had warned that outdoor endurance events of more than one hour will be postponed if the city's air is dirty. A delay will be difficult with the men's marathon, as it is scheduled for the closing day of the Olympics.
Rogge had also acknowledged that athletes' performances might be "slightly reduced" because of the pollution. Haile Gebrselassie, widely recognized as the world's greatest distance runner, will skip the Olympic marathon. He's said the city's pollution irritates his breathing. He's also called it "the hardest marathon in history," combining heat, humidity and pollution.
Baldini acknowledged the health risks for runners like Gebrselassie, but said he wasn't worried.
"I don't think that running one race in these conditions would have any effect on your health," Baldini said. "It's true that we have to worry about it because the situation is serious. But I'm not worried that August will be as bad as it is now."
Many athletes will delay their arrival in Beijing until the last possible moment, but Baldini plans to train for about 10 days in China's capital before his race.
"The biggest problem could the be 10-12 days before in the sense that the pollution might have a bigger effect than during the race itself," said Baldini's coach Luciano Gigliotti.
Baldini, who turns 37 next month, has been under pressure in Italy to respond to questions about possible boycotts and the deadly rioting last month in Tibet. He said he opposed boycotts, does not intend to speak out on political issues during the Olympics, and needed to focus on running a marathon.
"We do all have an opinion about the situation in Tibet," he said. "We do have our personal opinion, although I am someone who likes to follow what the rules are."
"There is sadness for the situation in Tibet, because I don't like what I see," he added. "But there are many other situations around the world that are similar. As a person I am very sad about this and everyone should be. These are things that are not nice to see."
Asked to pick a winner, Baldini singled out the Africans particularly London Marathon winner Martin Lel of Kenya. The Kenyans are expected to name their Olympic runners after next week's Boston Marathon.
Defending Olympic and European champion Baldini said the tough conditions in Beijing could level the field, turning it into a slow, tactical race. Unlike big city marathons, the Olympic marathon often produces unusual fields and upsets.
"I do believe I have a good chance because of my experience," Baldini said. "I already have several medals in important championships. That experience counts a lot for this event. The Olympic marathon is a totally different marathon from other marathons."
This Olympic marathon, in particular.