BEIJING – The smog alarmists were waiting eagerly for the first man to cough, sputter and slide from his bike, clutching his chest.
With the skies over the men’s cycling road race course thick and gray from the moment dawn broke Saturday, it appeared inevitable that Beijing’s smog would have its way with the respiratory systems of countless riders.
The critics were adamant in their assertion that the Chinese capital’s environment was not suitable for endurance athletes like the cyclists and marathon runners who will pound the streets toward the end of the Olympic Games.
They couldn’t wait to see a crawling, choking mass of humanity creep past the finish line.
Yet by the time Spain’s Samuel Sanchez headed a six-man sprint finish and raced under the Great Wall of China’s Juyongguan Pass for the final time, there was no doomsday scenario.
Every man who took on the 260-kilometer course went through varying degrees of agony, but not one of them blamed it on the quality of air.
Yes, the air in Beijing is bad. It doesn’t get much better 50 miles away at the Great Wall. It is thick and unpleasant and dirty. It irritates your throat and makes your eyes itch. It partly blocked the spectacular view of one of history’s architectural wonders.
It is caused by inexcusable industrial excess and toxic neglect, and it sure as heck can’t be healthy for the city’s inhabitants.
But in a purely sporting sense, it doesn’t appear to be any more harmful to performance than conditions in Athens, Seoul or even Los Angeles. Lest we forget that in the City of Angels in 1984, Swiss marathon runner Gabriele Andersen-Scheiss staggered desperately toward the line on the verge of unconsciousness.
On Saturday, the sweltering heat and humidity of up to 97 percent caused far more discomfort for the competitors than the air quality.
In a race of this length it is normal for several riders to pull out once it is clear they have no chance of winning, to save themselves for the time trials or track events later in the Games.
“It felt like I had sat in a sauna for half an hour, it was just so humid,” said Dutch youngster Niki Terpstra, one of the first to withdraw. “That was even before I got on the bike. There was just no way to ventilate your body. Even when you get out of Beijing it doesn’t really change.”
Apart from the spectacular surrounding scenery, the course organizers did the riders no favors.
The first section, past the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, gave little hint of the difficulty to follow.
A northward climb up the Badaling Expressway took the riders to Juyongguan, where six laps of a twisting and technical loop course followed.
A cold shower section and extra drink stops could do little to ease the burden of humidity that stuck competitors’ jerseys to their skin like glue.
“There is no easy part of the course,” said non-finisher David Zabriskie of the United States. “Even the downhill sections were difficult.”
As a Chinese television commentator pointed out, the Great Wall setting epitomized the struggle of the riders perfectly.
The Great Wall’s history is as tragic as the vast edifice itself, with millions of Chinese having lost their lives creating it.
Cycling has it own tragedy to emerge from, that of chronic and widespread drug use that has destroyed the reputations of dozens of former stars.
On this day though, the tenacity of the riders gave cycling a brief reprieve from the ongoing disease that engulfs it.
The uncomplaining courage of the men who took on a course that could only be survived, not tamed, brought a shred of respectability back to a sport that picked at its own wounds then ripped itself apart.