Jakarta, Indonesia – Wide pavements, bike lanes and trees have suddenly popped up in Jakarta, at least in the areas around its main stadium, as Indonesia‘s notoriously congested capital gears up to host the Asian Games.
More than 14,000 athletes from 45 different Asian countries will compete in this year’s tournament, the world’s second-largest sports event after the Olympics.
The Indonesian government has spent $224m to prepare for the games, which officially open on August 18.
Over the past few months, old sport stadiums have been renovated, new facilities constructed and much of the city has been painted in the rainbow colours of the games.
But despite the city’s beautification efforts, its biggest problem still remains.
Air pollution has increased in the past years and Jakarta is now one of the world’s most polluted cities – on many days worse than China‘s capital, Beijing.
‘Look at the air now’
Millions of old environmentally unfriendly cars are the main culprits, along with coal power plants near the city.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry says it aims to reduce pollution levels from 184 micrograms to 25 micrograms per cubic metre, in line with the World Health Organization‘s standard.
But just three days before the opening of the Asian Games, the index showed an “unhealthy” level of 154 micrograms per cubic metre.
“The government has not done anything to improve air quality,” said Ahmad Safrudin, country coordinator for Clean Air Asia, claiming the measures taken to reduce traffic have all been “ceremonial”.
“We had a meeting with government officials in September last year to tell them that if they want to have cleaner air during the Asian Games, they need to start checking emission levels, introduce clean air technology, using euro 4 standards for car engines, prohibit trucks to enter the city and close factories near the city – but look at the air right now.”
During the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou in November 2010, China was also battling air pollution, which it managed to bring down.
“China did a good job to manage the pollution by decreasing the number of cars and factories. Until now, the result is better than it was. But, in Jakarta, the environment has no priority, especially air pollution. The economy comes first,” said Safrudin.
The minister for environment was not available to comment.
Imam Nahrawi, the minister for youth and sports, said the government works hard to control air quality in Sumatra, where nearly every year forest fires cause a choking haze near the city of Palembang – the other venue of the games.
But Nahrawi admitted not much was done in the capital.
“This is Jakarta, this is not only place for sports but this is the economic centre – the centre where everything comes together,” he said.
Focus on competing
Studies have shown that air pollution has a much bigger effect during exercise because of both nasal and oral breathing.
Athletes take in as much as 20 times more air than a person at rest. At sports events such as the Asian Games, where victory is measured in milliseconds and millimetres, air pollution can ultimately determine who wins or loses, or if records are set or not, experts say.
“Air quality heavily impacts the performance of athletes in outdoor sports, especially the marathon and long-distance running,” said Hairo Tilarso, the doping control coordinator of the Asian Games.
“The athletes will be breathing not good air,” added Tilarso.
“We didn’t have that problem when Indonesia hosted the last Asian Games in 1962.”
But for athletes for such Emilia Nova, who is competing at hurdle racing, air quality is the least of her concerns.
“I am not too worried, maybe I am used to it,” she said.
“I am now purely focusing on competing against the best in the world.”