A study involving athletes from countries across Europe will look at how many are affected by exercise induced asthma and other allergic airway diseases during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Asthma occurs as a result of the airways becoming hypersensitive to various stressors which results in constriction and breathing difficulties.
Factors which can trigger asthma attacks include allergens, air temperature and humidity, exertion and particulate and chemical pollution (particularly oxides of sulphur and nitrogen) in the air.
There has been huge amounts of publicity about how the air pollution in the Chinese capital will affect athlete's at this summer's games. Beijing is one of the world's most polluted cities in the world and the authorities have conducted an £8.6 billion ($17.10 billion) clean up program over the past 10 years. This has included measures to reduce the numbers of cars that clog the city's roads.
Nikos Papadopoulos, vice president of the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) which is part of the planned study, believes that with proper precautions and treatment that asthmatic athletes will be able to perform at their best despite the pollution problems. This hasn't stopped a number of athletes including asthma sufferer and twice Olympic champion Haile Gebrselassie from pulling out of the games due to health fears.
Some teams will even include asthma specialists to monitor athletes for signs of the condition. Karen Holzer, an internationally respected asthma expert and member of the Australian Olympic team said last year that she would screen all athletes in the team to identify those with undiagnosed asthma and those at high risk of experiencing exercise-induced broncho-constriction (EIB).
Holzer said that asthmatic athletes can be protected by modifying when and where they train, reducing the time spent in Beijing before the games, and using aids such as face masks and air purifiers. The most important thing however is to identify those at highest risk.
The study will look at the prevalence of asthma amongst athletes and how the condition is affected by exercise at such a high level as well as by the high levels of pollution.
The numbers of athletes suffering from asthma is reported to have risen from 9% in the 1980s to 21% at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. These rates are higher than those in the general population.
Asthma expert Peter Burney, who will coordinate the British part of the study told the Associated Press that, "If you exert yourself a lot, you're more susceptible to the environment at that time because you're breathing in a lot more air. It [asthma]does seem to be high in athletes, particularly in distance athletes and in endurance sports.
The study was announced on World Asthma Day (Tues May 6) by its sponsor, the Global Allergy and Asthma European Network, an EU-funded research network.
The study is likely to involve hundreds of athletes from the participating countries: Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
The EAACI based in Brussels, Belgium said: "The pan-European study will allow scientists to specify the prevalence of asthma, exercise induced asthma and other allergic diseases among European athletes qualified for the Beijing Olympics."
The participating athletes will be given questionnaires before, during and after the Olympics to look at the relationship between activity at the games at health status before and after.
The study is being coordinated by professor Kai-Hakon Carlsen of the Voksentoppen Children's Asthma and Allergy Center in Oslo, Norway.