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Radcliffe addresses EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava

World Athletics Ambassador Paula Radcliffe highlighted the importance of the IAAF's air quality initiative and the need to get people involved in exercise during a presentation at the EU Clean Air Forum in Bratislava on Thursday (28). 

"I am a runner, one of over half a billion people who run on a regular basis around the globe," Radcliffe said, speaking before an audience of 300 at Bratislava's City Hall and thousands more via live stream.

"This number is growing daily. Yet only 20 percent of the world’s urban population live in areas that comply with air quality standards considered safe by WHO. Think about that - and how many people, not just runners, are therefore exercising daily and breathing in unsafe air."

The forum, the second convened by the European Commission, focused on four themes: air quality and health; air quality and energy; air quality and agriculture; and clean air funding mechanisms. The forum brought together decision-makers, stakeholders and experts for a two-day conference to reflect on the development and implementation of effective European, national and local air policies, projects and programmes.

In her presentation, 'An Athlete’s plea for Clean Air and healthier lifestyles', the former marathon world record holder outlined the hazards air pollution poses, the alarming levels of physical inactivity around the world, especially among young people and adolescents. The two combined, Radcliffe said, amount to an "imperfect storm".

"Globally, 23 percent of adults and a staggering 81 percent of adolescents – that’s defined as those aged between 11 and 17 - do not meet the World Health Organisation's global recommendations on physical activity for health," Radcliffe said. Meeting that threshold consists of about 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, or about 20 minutes a day of moderate activity like walking, or 10 minutes a day of aerobic activity such as running, swimming or riding a bike fast.

"And 81 percent of 11-17 year olds globally do not even manage to meet this level. That to me is unbelievable and should be shocking I think to everyone in this room."

Increased urbanization plays a big role in those figures, but so does the inability to create the habits of sport for life from a young age, Radcliffe said. Athletics can play a pivotal role in addressing that challenge.

“I believe athletics is uniquely placed to make a difference - more people run than do any other sport on the planet as I said earlier. Running - and walking - is accessible to almost anyone. It doesn’t cost much, it is the basis of so many different sports, can be done as a group or individually, and has exceptional benefits to people’s health – both physical and mental. But it’s better that when we’re encouraging people to run that we’re not replacing one set of pathologies with another.”

Therein lies the importance of World Athletics clean air initiatives that provide communities with the facts about the quality of the air in their cities through a network of air quality monitors installed in athletics stadiums and parks around the world.

“The plan is to roll the devices out to many more certified tracks and to monitor air quality at the top athletics events so we can collect a substantial amount of data that will piece together a picture revealing the best times of day an athlete can train and compete, and the safest locations for World Athletics events to take place,” Radcliffe said. “It is not just an academic exercises, it is crucial to the future health of athletics and our children and their children.”

“If you remember just two facts from my speech this morning,” Radcliffe concluded, “please can it be that 81 percent of young people around the world between the age of 11 and 17, do not manage to exercise even moderately for 20 minutes a day. And only 20 percent of the world’s urban population live in areas that comply with air quality standards considered safe by WHO.

“This is not the way nor the world we want our children and our grandchildren to live in.”

Radcliffe also participated in a European Environment Agency Facebook Live discussion later that day. Watch it below.

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics