ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — The Olympic marathon in Beijing won't be tarnished by world record-holder Haile Gebrselassie's decision to skip the event because of pollution concerns, IOC president Jacques Rogge said in an interview with the Associated Press.
"While I regret the absence of Haile Gebrselassie, I respect his decision. But the Games are far stronger than the individual. The marathon will be a great success and there will be a great champion."
The 34-year-old Ethiopian runner, a two-time Olympic 10,000-meter champion, said earlier this month he won't run the marathon at the Beijing Games because of the city's air pollution, heat and humidity. He may still run in the 10,000.
"It's going to be the hardest marathon in history," said Gebrselassie, who holds the world record of two hours four minutes 26 seconds.
Pollution - in addition to the violence in Tibet and other human rights issues - has been a major concern for China and the International Olympic Committee in the lead up to the August Olympics. Some athletes are reportedly considering wearing masks to ward off the bad air in Beijing.
While Belgian tennis star Justine Henin has expressed concern that the pollution could aggravate her asthma, Rogge said the four-time French Open champion will definitely compete in Beijing and her "No. 1 goal" of the year is to win the gold medal.
The IOC released data last week indicating that air quality in Beijing is better than expected, but athletes in outdoor endurance events could face risks.
Rogge said the figures show there is "no danger whatsoever" for athletes competing in high-intensity events lasting under an hour, but that those involved in endurance events longer than that - such as the marathon, road cycling and triathlon - could be affected by poor air.
Rogge reiterated that if pollution levels surpass a certain threshold, those events could be postponed until the air clears. The men's marathon is traditionally held on the final day of the Games.
"We could easily postpone for a couple of hours or start at an earlier hour. I'm not very worried about that."