A masked man walks by the National Stadium in Beijing amid heavy smog.
The first “airpocalypse” of fall hit Beijing this week, but local residents are not the only ones being forced to deal with the smothering smog blanketing the Chinese capital. World-class cyclists and soccer stars from Argentina and Brazil, as well as American pop diva Mariah Carey, are also contending with the city’s choking air.
Beijing’s air quality index has stayed above 300, categorized as “hazardous” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, since Wednesday. The local government raised its air pollution alert to orange, the second-highest level, advising people of all ages to avoid outdoor activities and suspending sports classes at schools.
The heavy pollution arrived just in time for the five-day Tour of Beijing, but organizers did not cancel the cycling event, which started in the nearby city of Zhangjiakou, which had lower levels of smog. The world’s top professional cyclists, including Alejandro Valverde, who finished fourth at Tour de France this year, kicked off the event Friday morning. The race ends with a 73-mile ride through the heart of Beijing on Tuesday.
Carey, meanwhile, was set to perform outdoors in Beijing’s Workers Stadium on Friday evening, and international soccer stars including Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazil’s Neymar were scheduled to attend. Messi and Neymar arrived in the city this week with their national teams to prepare for a highly anticipated game Saturday evening.
Three months ago, a dream matchup in the World Cup final between Argentina and Brazil was spoiled by Neymar’s injury in the quarterfinals, which led to Brazil’s disastrous 7-1 defeat in the semifinals to Germany. The Beijing game promises a faceoff between two of the world’s most beloved soccer stars, but the city’s hazardous air might diminish the experience for players and fans.
The game between Argentina and Brazil, billed as “the South American Superclasico,” is set to kick off at 8 p.m. Saturday in Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium, which hosted soccer games during the 2008 Olympics. To prepare for Saturday evening’s game, stars from both teams, including Messi and Neymar, attended practices on soccer fields in the open air Thursday, when the AQI reached as high as 499, one point shy of the maximum value of 500 for most serious air pollution.
During the practice, Messi frequently used his hands to cover his mouth and nose, and had to stop to rest many times with his hands around his waist or knees, Chinese press reported. He was pulled out of the practice early.
Weather forecasters have said rain and wind should arrive Saturday night, blowing some of the smog out of Beijing. Still, Chinese soccer fans have started to worry that their favorite players will not give their full effort under such conditions.
“The soccer stars are using their lives to take the challenge of playing a soccer game in the smog. No matter how much money they make, it might not be enough for their medical bills afterward,” one commentator wrote after a story in Chinese press about Thursday’s practice.
But the Argentine national team’s new manager, Gerardo Martino, who took over the team after the World Cup, downplayed the air quality’s role in a game between the greatest rivals in international soccer.
“Argentina against Brazil is the most important derby between national teams. It doesn’t matter where the match is held, it’s always important for the history between us and now also for the players,” Martino told reporters Thursday.
Brazil’s team doctor, though, has apparently recommended that aside from practices, the athletes stay indoors and avoid outside air as much as possible.
“One of the pieces of advice that those responsible for pollution control give is that people should stay indoors and this is what we have done,” Rodrigo Lasmar, Brazil’s team doctor, was quoted as saying by the Estado de São Paulo newspaper.
“Our athletes stay inside the hotel and only go out for training. Out of every 24 hours, they spend 22 inside the hotel.”
For the Chinese soccer fans who have been waiting for the game between Argentina and Brazil for months, many are also concerned that the smog might spoil their viewing experience.
“What if I can’t tell Messi from Neymar at Saturday night’s game?” Sun Puxue wrote in a post on Chinese social media website Weibo.
“After the goal keeper kicks the ball with a long pass, all the players on the field may start wondering where the ball went,” another user from Beijing joked.