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Masked Avengers of International Basketball

This summer, a lot of the NBA's best players will jet to China determined to re-establish American dominance in international basketball.

As they land in Beijing, however, unless things improve mightily in the intervening months, the view out the plane window might not be so great.

It's no secret that there is some very polluted air in parts of China.Pollution in Beijing

The New York Times today talks about how Olympic teams gearing up for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing are preparing elaborate measures to give athletes the best chance to compete at a high level, despite environmental conditions that have shown to negatively impact performance.

For many teams, the preparation will include simply not being in Beijing until the last minute -- training instead in places like Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan.

Juliet Macur's lengthy article cites a laundry list of risks from pollutants like ozone and particulate matter, which experts say can both cause acute reactions. The article includes phrases like "damage of lung tissue" and "asthma attack," and even notes that the rate of heart attacks is higher on high pollution days.

The article says the U.S.O.C.'s own monitoring of Beijing air has shown levels of pollutants to be "disturbingly" high.

I know, I know, on some level we all think -- for crying out loud, who hasn't seen some smog? Is anyone really going to get hurt by this?

I think the truth is that unlike getting punched, or hit by a car, this particular health threat has effects that are extremely vague, in some cases long-term, and diffuse. The effects are hard to pin down. But they are not nothing. Also scientists also say that the air in Beijing is worse than what we're used to in American cities.

Macur quotes American athletes who have competed there recently. Cyclist Colby Pearce -- who competes indoors -- said, "When you are coughing up black mucus, you have to stop for a second and say: 'O.K., I get it. This is a really, really bad problem we're looking at.'"

Triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker recently experimented with wearing a special mask until just before his event and tells Macur: "I could still taste the grit on my teeth, but I could actually talk and breathe. That wasn't the case in other years."

Notably absent from the conversation was the suggestion of long-term relief for the millions who breathe this air every day.

For U.S. athletes, at least, there is a practical short-term measure at the ready:

Mr. Wilber's U.S.O.C. laboratory here helped design a mask featuring an activated carbon filtration system. He is secretive about the details, hesitant to show it or to have it photographed.

Roughly 750 to 1,000 masks, which cost about $20 to $25 each, will be part of the Olympic gear given to athletes. The masks filter 85 percent to 100 percent of the main pollutants, Mr. Wilber said, compared with paper masks, which filter 25 percent to 45 percent.

At the 2006 world junior track and field championships in Beijing, Mr. Wilber tested an early version of the mask, but it impeded breathing. After redesigns that Mr. Wilber would not describe, the new mask can be worn during training and competition.

So there you go. If you're a U.S. Olympic athlete like like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony, it's a three-for-one! You get to protect your own body from long-term harms known and unknown, while increasing your chances to perform at a higher level. As a bonus, you get to be something of a hero and a leader, as a visual reminder to all watching that something needs to be done about polluted air.

Sure it's not sexy. And it might feel strange. But I say wear the mask. If you're an athlete, anything other than playing it safe with your body is nuts.

It appears, however, that forces are gathering to see to it that American athletes do not compete in masks.

Macur writes:

The I.O.C. spokeswoman Sandrine Tonge said the international federation for each sport made the rules on what athletes can and can't wear in competition. So it is conceivable that some athletes will wear masks during their Olympic events, but Mr. Wilber said no Americans would do so.

"I think it would be a huge political issue and an embarrassment to the Chinese people and to the I.O.C. if American athletes wore masks in the event itself," Mr. Wilber said. "If that image was beamed around the world on TV, it would cause nothing but problems."

Wow.

I can't imagine ever preventing someone from taking a very reasonable and harmless step to protect their own body from contaminants known to be present and pernicious. Forget being an athlete -- as a human I'd like to be able to decide what does and what does not go in my lungs.

If I'm right in deducing that the moving force behind keeping masks off the faces of American athletes would be the concerns of Chinese officials, then I can only say that those must be some powerful Chinese officials! (How do you get that kind of power? I don't know, but the Times also has coverage from Davos, Switzerland, where the talk at the World Economic Forum is about the declining global economic influence of the United States, coupled with the ascendance of China and India.)

I can tell you this much: if I was on Team USA? I'd wear the mask and let the chips fall where they may. See it as simple personal protection, or grand-scale international politics. Makes sense either way.

(Photo, taken less than a month ago, is of pollution over Beijing's Tian'anmen Square. By Feng Li/Getty Images)