British Olympic Sailing team in 'illegal meteorological survey' row

There has long been a rumour circulating that Qindao, the venue chosen for the Sailing events in the 2008 Olympics suffers from a lack of wind. Now it transpires that Britain’s Olympic sailing team have been targeted by the Chinese secret police for conducting “illegal meteorological surveys”. The RYA set up a weather station in Qingdao to analyse the conditions that will influence August’s races. But towards the end of 2006 the weather station, which cost £8,000, was confiscated by the Chinese authorities and has not been returned.

In a move which might have developed into a serious diplomatic incident, the RYA’s racing manager, Stephen Park, was then interrogated by the secret police. “I was questioned fairly extensively by their secret police and their equivalent of the Met Office,” said Park, who was concerned enough to inform the British consular office in Beijing before attending the interview.

The weather unit, a standard off-the-shelf product which is used by sailing teams at events around the world, records humidity, wind strength and direction and rainfall. An official Chinese news portal on the internet stated last month that weather-data collection such as the RYA’s infringed the nation’s meteorological law and its “measures for the administration of foreign-related meteorological sounding and information”. Although the former law was introduced in 2000, the second piece of legislation was not introduced until 2007, when the RYA’s equipment had already been confiscated.

“With the approaching of the Beijing Olympics, foreign illegal meteorological surveys have emerged in several Olympic cities,” said the official portal, “Three cases involving the US, the UK and Australia have been reported since last year. Foreign violators installed illegal monitoring equipments under the auspices of pre-match preparation.

“In order to curb these kinds of violations the China Meteorological Association has issued a notice in August of this year, stressing that local meteorological authorities in Olympic cities should crack down on illegal meteorological surveying.”

Although Qingdao is situated on a major naval route through the Yellow Sea, no other nations’ sailing teams have suffered similar confiscations. And with the US and Australian Olympic teams the others to be targeted – they were first and fourth in the Athens medal table when China and Russia came second and third respectively – it has led to the suspicion that successful teams such as Britain’s sailors are being singled out for attention.

The Chinese customs authorities have also made life uncomfortable for the British team by impounding their bicycles until the day before their departure from training. But of more concern to the likes of Ben Ainslie, who will be striving for a third successive Olympic gold, are the light winds which are expected to make racing tricky. Without the weather station, monitoring conditions has been made more difficult for the RYA’s meteorologists, who are now trying to access Chinese data and validate it independently.

That double-checking process seems necessary because other official data appear unreliable – British Olympic team sources say the certified number of “blue-sky days” recorded in Beijing in 2005 was double the number reported when the Games were awarded in 2001.

Matt Scott, Guardian Unlimited.
Image: City of