One year ... and counting

ALISON KORN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

There's still a year to go before the 2008 Summer Olympics open in Beijing, but the guessing games have already begun for Team Canada.

Who's going? How many medals can we win?

And, how will our athletes ever be able to cope with the host city's horrendous smog problem?

About one in six summer athletes use asthma inhalers to help open up breathing airways in the lungs. But because the pollution in Beijing is so foul, many athletes who never before had trouble breathing may suddenly find themselves slightly short of breath -- a small reduction, but one that may mean the difference between winning a medal or failing to.

"There's no doubt this is the most polluted place in the world," said the Canadian Olympic Committee's environmental physiologist, Jon Kolb. "The thing that causes it is obviously the massive population growth and increase in automobiles. They use coal for energy and are basically driving the world economy at this point, factories are working overtime."

Kolb is testing athletes in advance to see whether they should be prescribed an inhaler to have ready for Beijing, just in case.

Horrible air quality is just one issue facing the Canadian Olympic Committee as it strives to offer Canadian athletes the best-ever preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Along with the inevitable training and team selection, the fact that the Olympics are in Beijing means there is an extra layer of issues for Canadians to deal with, such as travel and time zones, food, culture, along with stifling heat and humidity.

COPING IN CHINA

More Canadian athletes and teams than ever are heading to Beijing this summer and fall to check the place out. Many have already visited, courtesy of the COC, and some will go more than once.

There are pre-Olympic competitions, training camps and familiarization trips. By the time the Games start on Aug. 8, 2008, about 200 of Canada's team of 250 will have already been to China.

That's important, because the differences between here and there are extreme -- and could easily knock athletes off their game. Even something as innocuous as a tourist attraction is a distraction that can be visited -- and crossed off one's list early.

"Typically things people want to do is go to Tiannamen Square, the Great Wall and the silk market," said Alex Gardiner, COC senior director, Olympic programming-technical. "That may take a day. "Otherwise, the familiarization is of training venues, competition venues, culture, food, and things like the distance between the village and competition venue."

The Canadian team is also working on heat acclimation, cooling and recovering strategies, and scouting out sites for teams to train immediately before Beijing -- one favourite that has emerged is Singapore, which has the same time zone as Beijing, decent prices, but far less pollution.

Jet lag, food, language, and even the population density will come as a shock to many athletes, who are strongly encouraged to take that free trip to China before the Olympics.

"We've put together an environmental and nutritional checklist that has already been distributed to all the teams," said Kolb. "They all know what's going on."

The challenge of China aside, just making the Olympic team is a huge hurdle, and most athletes won't know until next spring or early summer whether they've earned a ticket to Beijing.

And not only do athletes have to earn themselves a spot on the national team, their team must also qualify internationally for the Olympics, either at world championships or other events.

Many summer Olympic sports are having world championships this month or in the fall that will be their first opportunity to pre-qualify.

At the recent Pan American Games, Canada finished third in the medal count and locked up eight Olympic berths. They were: the men's team in field hockey; Avianno Chao of Toronto in women's 10-metre air pistol; Giuseppe Di Salvatore of Surrey, B.C., in men's trap; the equestrian squad in team eventing, team dressage and team jumping; and one men's and one women's quota position in modern pentathlon.

"Right now I'm still overwhelmed with excitement and a little bit of disbelief, to be honest, that it's happened, that we've qualified for China," said Scott Sandison, a veteran defender on the men's field hockey team that beat Argentina in a hair-raising shootout in Rio.

"Field hockey is a sport where any one team can beat another team on any given day, so it's going to be a very competitive Olympics. Anything's up for grabs."

For many sports and athletes, the Pan Am Games served as a simulation and rehearsal event for next year's Olympics. Like the COC, sports are fine-tuning their sport science, sport medicine and technology support plans well in advance.

The hope is that Canada will rise in the standings in Beijing to finish in 16th place overall, up from 19th in Athens in 2004. At Athens, Canada won 12 medals. It's going to take at least 15 medals, maybe as many as 19, for Canada to reach its goal.

"It's a moving target," Gardiner said. "We have to keep in mind that other countries are doing as much as we are, if not more. We hope to overtake them in our preparation."

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COMPETITION LIST

(Sports/Events for the Beijing Summer Games)

- AQUATICS - DIVING

- AQUATICS - SWIMMING

- AQUATICS - SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING

- AQUATICS - WATER POLO

- ARCHERY

- ATHLETICS

- BADMINTON

- BASEBALL

- BASKETBALL

- BOXING

- CANOE/KAYAK Slalom, Sprint

- CYCLING Track, Road, Mountain Bike, BMX

- EQUESTRIAN Jumping, Dressage, Eventing

- FENCING

- FIELD HOCKEY

- FOOTBALL (Soccer)

- GYMNASTICS Artistic, Rhythmic, Trampoline

- HANDBALL

- JUDO

- MODERN PENTATHLON

- ROWING

- SAILING

- SHOOTING

- TABLE TENNIS

- TAEKWONDO

- TENNIS

- TRIATHLON

- VOLLEYBALL Beach, Indoor

- WEIGHTLIFTING

- WRESTLING


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