BEIJING (AFP) — Olympic organisers declared victory Friday in the battle against the city's notorious pollution, as the first day of athletics began under blue skies at the "Bird's Nest" stadium in Beijing.
After one week of competition, concerns about the toxic air that normally pervades the Chinese capital appeared to have evaporated thanks to drastic anti-pollution measures and a heavy storm that blew through the city.
With powder white clouds in the blue skies, the most picturesque weather of the Games greeted competitors as the athletics began at the National Stadium.
"The information so far is very encouraging. The recent... days have had very good air conditions indeed," International Olympic Committee's medical commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist told reporters, adding air quality targets had been met.
"There is no indication that there will be a problem in the near future."
Athletes at the Bird's nest stadium also spoke in refreshing tones about the the clear air.
"It was a surprise for me. Where was all the pollution I have read about in the newspapers?," said Ukrainian heptathlete Ganna Melnichenko, after the first session of the women's event. "The sky is blue. It couldn't be better."
IOC president Jacques Rogge had intensified concerns about the impacts of the pollution when he said last year that endurance events such as the marathon or long distance cycling could be delayed or cancelled if air quality was poor.
The fears were heightened in the week before the Games as haze shrouded the city of 17 million people, and some athletes spoke nervously about the conditions.
Beijing passed one of its biggest Olympic pollution tests in the first week of the Games when the road cycle events were held. Competitors complained of the heat and humidity, but not about pollution.
Beijing took dramatic last-ditch steps to clear the air in the run-up to the Games, taking a million of the city's 3.3 million cars off the road, as well as shutting down construction work and more than 100 factories.
A heavy storm on Thursday further helped create the picture-book conditions on Friday.
But officials said they were also reaping the benefits of nine years of work.
Sarah Liao, an environmental official with the Beijing Olympic organising committee (BOCOG), said closure of polluting factories near the city, improved emissions standards for vehicles and a shift to gas-fired boilers had helped.
"The Olympics has been a real catalyst (for environmental improvement in Beijing). People may be skeptical about it, but it is happening," she told AFP.
World Health Organisation China chief Hans Troedsson agreed air quality had improved in recent months, although he said last week that pollution in Beijing still presented long-term health risks to residents.
Meanwhile, despite the nice weather on Friday with a maximum temperature of 31 degrees Centigrade (88 degrees Fahrenheit), there were concerns that Beijing's traditionally volatile August weather could further impact on events.
Storms have already disrupted sports including baseball, beach volleyball and rowing, while the wisdom of squeezing the rain-affected tennis competitions into 10 days was questioned by world number one Roger Federer.
An official with the Beijing Meteorological Bureau said extreme heat that occurred in the early days of the Olympics was unlikely to return, although he predicted more rain could be on its way.
A seven-day forecast on the BOCOG weather site said temperatures would not rise above 33 degrees, although there could be showers over the weekend.
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