When the starter’s gun sounded for the 34th annual Beijing International Marathon on Sunday, air pollution measured 20 times worse than what the World Health Organization considers safe to breathe. Anywhere else in the world, this would have been a scandal worthy of collective soul-searching. In Beijing, many of the roughly 26,000 runners donned anti-pollution face masks and gamely dashed through the hazy streets.
The race was hardly the first major sporting event to be marred by unbreathable air in China. A week before the marathon, Argentinian football superstar Lionel Messi was photographed struggling through a pollution-choked practice in Beijing before a friendly between the Brazilian and Argentinian national teams. In April 2013, the Ladies Professional Golf Association drew a blast of criticism for choosing to play the final of its premier Chinese event amid heavy pollution, claiming it was “fog.”
Everyone knows why international sporting organizations continue to put up with such appalling conditions: money. On Monday, China’s State Council, the country’s top governing body, announced a plan to build up “sports” (comprising everything from stadiums to health food) into an $814 billion industry by 2025. Few other countries have the potential to generate as much revenue for international sports leagues and federations as China does.
That’s why the NFL currently streams games for free on the mainland to build up its audience, and why FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, sanctioned the smog-choked Oct. 11 friendly between Brazil and Argentina. Even the International Olympic Committee, which famously forced Chinese authorities to clean up Beijing’s air for the three weeks of the 2008 Games, is now taking a serious look at holding the 2022 Winter Games in the mainland’s most polluted province. China might be the only nation willing and able to put up the money to host the event.
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At a certain point, though, profit-seeking shades over into abuse. Even the most accomplished athletes have little recourse other than to boycott events they fear might harm their health – an option that places them at risk of alienating teammates, sponsors and Chinese fans. Ultimately it’s the responsibility of professional sports leagues to balance the need to protect competitors – their lifeblood – against the risk of alienating China and losing out on future revenue if they complain too loudly.
It’s worth remembering that, for all the money at its disposal, China needs the goodwill of global sports leagues as much as they need China. Chinese leaders are desperate to avoid embarrassment at high-profile events, which they often view as exercises in expressing China’s status and power. International stars are generally more bankable on Chinese television than homegrown teams. And China depends on foreign athletes to raise the standard of play in its own professional leagues.
With that kind of leverage, international sports leagues and federations shouldn’t be afraid to set certain minimum standards for air quality at their events, whether they’re held in China or anywhere else. Had Chinese authorities feared Sunday’s marathon might be cancelled, they undoubtedly would have taken measures to clear the air ahead of time, as they occasionally do in advance of important political meetings. Unlike so much in today’s commercially driven sports market, the result would have benefited fans as much as the athletes.