BEIJING, China, July 16...When Haile Gebrselassie, the world's fastest marathon runner dropped out of the Beijing Olympics last month, saying he was afraid the pollution would aggravate his asthma, there was consternation in the Chinese capital. But this turned to panic when tennis ace Justine Henin, also an asthmatic, announced that she would not be defending her gold medal.
Some athletes complained of fatigue and illness in their training sessions, while others said they had become disoriented in the fogs of smog that hang over the Imperial City. The American boxing team said they had returned from a morning run with "burning eyes, coughing, and breathing difficulties." Mountain biker Jeremy Horgan-Kobeleski said his "body had shut down" midway in a 30 mile race and he had to pull over to vomit.
"This was another sign of Western softness and decadence," said Chiang Re Kong of the Chinese Health Ministry, an inhaler clenched defiantly between his teeth. "We thrive in these conditions."
Still, in deference to the weak occidental athletes, emergency regulations were instituted. Automobile traffic was halved in downtown Beijing. Factories were told to suspend production until the end of September. Algae blooms caused by untreated sewage were cleared off the sailing venue. Chemical spills and toxic runoff were cleansed from the canoe and kayak runs.
But air and water quality remained poor, Re Kong admits, so the People's Republic took Draconian measures.
Beijing residents were told to hold their breaths for two minutes every hour to minimize the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air.
"Infants, the elderly and the terminally ill were excused of course," Re Kong said, hastily.
When that didn't work the billion plus population of China was ordered to fast one day a week.
"Zero rice consumption will reduce the amount of methane released into the air by flatulence," Re Kong explained. "Also, those who do not eat cannot produce body waste to pollute waterways."
The Western media immediately dubbed this "fartless Friday." Infants, the elderly and Government officials were exempted from the order.
But still, pollution levels remained stubbornly high and more athletes announced that they were dropping out.
"We had hoped Beijing would be the scene of many world records," Re Kong said. "Now we just want people to show up."
In a quandary, the Chinese came up with a brilliant solution.
"If we cannot set a world record for the fastest time we will reward the slowest with a special medal," said Dr Booxi Xixun, of the Ministry of Information, said at a press conference today.
His voice muffled by a reinforced surgical mask, made exclusively for Communist Party members, Dr. Xixun declared that "winning and record setting are merely symptoms of bourgeois elitism," and claimed to be offering " a truly Zen exercise for all competitive people who drive themselves to win at all costs."
"We are encouraging athletes to go for their Personal Worst," he said. "The five minute pollution-assisted mile. The ten pound clean and jerk."
"We will bring a whole new class of athletes into prominence," he said. " The pole vault bar will be set so low you will have to do the limbo to qualify. The also-ran and the under-achiever will finally have their day.
"Bookmakers quickly established a "loser line" for all the events. An early favorite in the marathon was Margaret Hagerty, an 85 year old North Carolinian. She is the oldest woman to run in marathons on all seven continents, including Antarctica, but has never won a medal.
Other favorites are the Micronesian basketball team and the Samoan sprinters. Wiping a soot smudge off his forehead, Dr. Xixun declared that "the Beijing Olympics will be truly historic."
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