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No, Smoggy Beijing Isn't Going to Get the Winter Olympics—at Least, Not Yet

Heavy smog in Beijing, on Jan. 12

Photograph by Imaginechina/Corbis

Heavy smog in Beijing, on Jan. 12

Maybe Chinese government officials have suddenly developed a sense of irony. With Beijing now in the thick of the autumn/winter smog season, the Chinese Olympic Committee decided this would be a good time to announce that Beijing will bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

The Olympic movement already has experience worrying about the impact of Chinese pollution. When Beijing hosted the summer games in 2008, athletes were so concerned about the city’s notoriously bad air, many teams trained in Japan rather than take their chances in the Chinese capital.

That was during the summer—which isn’t even the bad season for air pollution. Beijing’s really thick smog descends on the city in the winter, because of China’s reliance on coal for heat during the cold months. In late October, the pollution level in Tiananmen Square was already soaring, with the concentration of PM2.5, fine air particulates that pose the greatest health risk, rising to 189 micrograms per cubic meter. The United Nations says anything above 25 is unsafe. And Beijing wasn’t the worst off city in China that day. The northeastern city of Harbin suffered PM2.5 levels above 300.

At least Chinese officials acknowledge they have a pollution problem and have a plan to clean up the air in Beijing and other smoggy cities. There’s even reason to be hopeful about Tuesday’s announcement of a joint bid by Beijing and Zhangjiakou, a city in the mountains 200 km northwest of the capital. There’s a lot of time between now and 2022, and by then China may have made significant progress in fighting pollution.

That’s the hopeful spin presented by the Xinhua news agency. Yes, smog in Beijing is bad. “But the government has already started to tackle the problem,” says Li Yingchuan, head of the Beijing Sports Bureau. “I believe in 10 years the situation will be much better.”

Let’s hope so. But I think Chinese officials understand that 10 years isn’t enough time. After all, even if Beijing had pristine blue skies throughout the winter, there’s little chance China would get the Winter Games in 2022—just four years after they take place in nearby South Korea. The International Olympic Committee almost certainly will want to go to Europe or North America rather than hold back-to-back Winter Games in Asia.

Beijing’s 2022 bid is therefore probably just a practice run, a chance for officials to get a better understanding of what it takes to win before making a better bid later. Beijing had a similar experience with the Summer Games, losing out to Sydney for 2000 before winning in 2008. So yes, the Chinese are determined to address the embarrassing pollution problem in their capital, and eventually the IOC will want to have its winter games in the world’s largest country. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for the air to clear in time for 2022.

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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