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Running star wants world to move faster on air pollution

Retired star runner David Rudisha said athletes must be protected from air pollution (Fabrice COFFRINI)
Retired star runner David Rudisha said athletes must be protected from air pollution (Fabrice COFFRINI)

Kenya's 800 metres world record holder David Rudisha is urging the planet to combat air pollution, saying athletes need clean air to keep smashing boundaries at showpiece events like the Olympic Games.

Breathing in huge lungfuls of air, athletes feel the sharp end of air pollution. Taming dirty air at the world's landmark sports events will bring wider knock-on benefits in host cities, Rudisha told AFP in an interview.

Rudisha, the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic champion, is at the World Health Organization's annual assembly in Geneva this week to urge countries to capitalise on the benefits of clean air for sport.

"In the world right now, over 80 percent of the population are living below acceptable air quality, which is a big problem and it's causing so many people chest and pulmonary diseases," he said.

"This is a very, very serious issue that needs to be tackled.

"Athletes also need to be protected and safeguarded against these pollutants."

A resolution before the WHO's assembly calls on countries to use the magnitude of major sports events like the Olympics and the football World Cup to strengthen health and general well-being, including through ensuring they support clean air, clean water and healthy diets.

- 'We breathe the same air' -

With the Paris 2024 Olympics set to take the global spotlight in July and August, Rudisha, 35, wants the world to seize the moment.

Rudisha is at the WHO assembly as an ambassador for World Athletics -- the sport's global governing body -- and Athletics Kenya, the national governing body which is working with the Stockholm Environment Institute to install air quality sensors in Kenyan stadiums to monitor pollution levels.

Events can be cancelled if the air is deemed unsafe.

Ensuring athletics meetings go ahead as planned has led to local-level clean-ups, making the air quality better for spectators and local residents alike.

"We breathe the same air and when we have clean air, that means also the whole community benefits," Rudisha said.

And without good conditions for sport, athletes cannot reach their peak performance -- and records are unlikely to tumble.

While athletes do everything they can to get ready for competitions, Rudisha said organisers and governments must do likewise, ensuring professional athletes can perform in safe conditions.

- Taking sport to next level -

"We always love to enjoy our sportsmen and women when they're competing," said Rudisha.

"We have so many memories seeing how they can push their limits. But we can't have them if we don't provide a safe environment: if we don't have quality air.

"If the environment is not conducive for competition, it affects their performance.

"We love to see sport going to higher levels, and with this safeguarding, it will also take sport to the next level."

Besides pollution, Rudisha said sports events were already seeing the effects of climate change, with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics marathon being moved north to cooler Sapporo, and the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha shifting some events to midnight due to the searing heat.

"This is the time to act because we need to do something about our climate," the softly-spoken Rudisha added.

Rudisha's 800m world record time of 1:40.91, set at London 2012, has never been beaten.

Now retired, Rudisha said he was looking forward to watching the 800 metres at the Paris Games.

"In the Olympics, anything can happen. It's always very competitive and everybody goes there to win. So there's a lot of expectation," he said.

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