Beijing Serves Up Toxic Smog to World’s Tennis Stars

Air pollution levels in the Chinese capital might be negatively affecting the health of players in the China Open.

Spectators wearing masks watch Novak Djokovic of Serbia play Simone Bolelli of Italy at the China Open in Beijing. (Photo: Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Oct 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Some of the world’s top tennis stars—big names such as Venus Williams and Rafael Nadal—are in Beijing for the China Open. And it seems the city’s notorious smog is giving the athletes a toxic welcome.

The match is being held at the open-air National Tennis Center, and incidents of players feeling dizzy, coughing, and vomiting are being reported. Some spectators are also wearing face masks as they sit in the stands.

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Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a French tennis player, complained of dizziness during a match he lost on Monday, but he did not directly blame the pollution for his loss.

“I don’t know. You know, nothing in me can calculate if it’s enough oxygen for me or not. I just play tennis. Today I had an opponent, he was just better than me today,” Tsonga replied when asked if the pollution was a factor in his defeat, according to SuperSport.

But in a Facebook post that was later deleted, Martin Klizan, a Slovakian player who is ranked 42nd in the world, complained about the smog’s effect on his health.

“There is such an extreme smog in the city, that due to my health, which should be a priority of every tournament organisator, unfortunately, I will have to leave out this tournament from my calendar for the rest of my tennis career,” Klizan wrote, according to CNN.

Klizan’s concern might not be misplaced. Of the 7 million people who died worldwide from air pollution in 2012, a full 40 percent of those deaths were in the region dominated by China, according to the World Health Organization.

China’s National Meteorological Center issued a warning on Tuesday about the air-pollution levels in the capital, and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing also warned that the smog conditions were “hazardous,” CNN reported. Local media tweeted shocking images of the haze blanketing the city.


Beijing saw gorgeous blue skies at the end of August and the beginning of September after officials banned 2.8 million vehicles from roads in preparation for a military parade. Just one day after the event, which commemorated the defeat of Japan in World War II, the vehicles—and the pollution spewing from their tailpipes—were back.

Removing vehicles from roads for even one day can make a significant difference in the levels of particulate matter in the air. After cars were banned on the last Sunday of September in central Paris, there was a measurable decline in air pollution in the French capital. The amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air was 20 to 40 percent lower than on a typical Sunday.

Chinese authorities began cracking down on particulate matter in vehicle exhaust with a pledge to kick 6 million cars that didn’t meet new emissions standards off roads. But it’s estimated that 240 million private cars may be on roads there.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, some locals expressed their concern for the players. “There is definitely danger to the athletes,” one spectator, Ren Yumei, told CNN. But not everyone was worried about the effect of the thick clouds of haze on the lungs of the athletes. “It’s not like this air pollution never existed in Beijing before,” another spectator said.