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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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August 6, 2008 8:50 AM

U.S. cyclists caught in facemask dustup: Whose side is USOC on?

Posted by Ron Judd

Apparently in the eyes of the U.S. Olympic Committee, winning at these Olympics comes secondary -- to honoring the Benevolent and Protective Host City of Beijing and people of China.

That's the message sent loud and clear yesterday after four U.S. track cyclists, including Kirkland's Jennie Reed, committed the cardinal sin of entering the smog-choked Beijing Intergalactic Airport wearing protective breathing masks.

The masks, aimed at curbing Beijing's world-class pollution, were developed by the USOC's own sports physiologists to protect athletes' lungs from particulate matter. They were distributed by the USOC to athletes, who say they were directed to don them immediately upon landing in the city.

In spite of rancid air that was so bad this week that it apparently fouled breathing inside venues such as the Water Cube for swimming, few U.S. athletes had donned the masks, apparently out of fear that it would look bad. So when Reed, et al, were photographed walking through the airport wearing the black masks, it sparked a minor tizzy. Particularly when a USOC official at the scene -- unidentified at this point -- reportedly dressed down the athletes for embarrassing the hosts.

AP Photo/Alastair Grant


The cyclists, Reed, Mike Friedman, Sarah Hammer and Bobby Lea, said they were only following protocol. And they had good reason: Reed said she had competed in Beijing before and been literally sickened by the air. She told Velo News in March that the city's notorious smog even fouled the air inside the velodrome at a previous competition there.

"You can see the smog layer (inside)," she said. "I did the World Cup there and got really sick, so it was very bad. In fact, most of the team got sick."

Reed told Velo News most of the team wore masks throughout their stay. "We even started to wear masks on the track, but it's hard to get the high air-flow," she said.

So the athletes were caught off guard by yesterday's hubbub.

"They have pollution in Los Angeles, and if the Olympics were in Los Angeles, we would probably wear these masks, too," Friedman told the New York Times.

But a USOC spokesman seemed to suggest the cyclists had broken some unwritten rule by wearing the masks in a public place.

"We've said all along that it is the athletes' choice whether to wear one if they feel it's necessary," said spokesman Darryl Seibel. "I'm no scientific expert, but walking through an airport doesn't seem like the place where it would be necessary to wear them."

That's right; he's no scientific expert. And ironically, physiologist Randy Wilber, the scientific expert the USOC pays to make these calls told athletes that wearing the masks -- specially designed for the cause -- was a good idea.

Yet the USOC this morning took the amazing step of coughing up a public apology from the athletes. Some important background might suggest why. This is an organization, remember, helmed, by Peter Ueberroth, who reportedly feels he has a lifetime debt to repay the Chinese because they failed to honor the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Olympics, thus saving Ueberroth's beloved Los Angeles Games. And it is the organization currently carrying the water for Chicago's 2016 Olympic bid, which, the paranoid among them feel, will be thrown to the dung heap of history should any American official or athlete do anything to offend the IOC in the interim.)

That gets you to stuff like this:

"We offer our sincere apologies to BOCOG, the city of Beijing, and the people of China if our actions were in any way offensive. That was not our intent.

"The wearing of protective masks upon our arrival into Beijing was strictly a precautionary measure we as athletes chose to take, and was in no way meant to serve as an environmental or political statement. We deeply regret the nature of our choices. Our decision was not intended to insult BOCOG or countless others who have put forth a tremendous amount of effort to improve the air quality in Beijing.
There you have it.

You're supposed to believe the apology was a completely spontaneous act by the four -- after they were summoned last night to a meeting with Steve Roush, the USOC's head of sport, according to a report in The Guardian.

"Unfortunately, you never want to go to somebody else's place and cause any embarrassment," Roush told The Guardian. "But in this case I think they did."

It's unclear at this point whether any U.S. track cyclist was actually waterboarded into signing the mea-culpa. But nothing would come as a surprise.

"It probably wasn't the most opportune time for these athletes to wear these masks," USOC CEO Jim Scherr was quoted as saying. "They were overly cautious."

Message delivered: We gave you those masks, but you really shouldn't wear them. To hell with your lungs; it's all about saving China's face.

The incident occurred, remember, at the same time Chinese and International Olympic Committee officials were trying to convince reporters that the air, which looks bad, feels bad, smells bad, tastes bad and breathes bad, really isn't so bad after all, and is in fact just another Western-media-hyped figment of the world's imagination.

The USOC -- buying into this, apparently -- was so busy attempting to smooth ruffled Chinese feathers, it couldn't find time to condemn the benevolent hosts for banning Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheek from China. At a news conference Wednesday in Beijing, Scherr dismissed Cheek -- the USOC's "Sportsman of the Year" in 2006, as just another "private citizen who's trying to make his way to these Games."

Sort of makes you wonder: Whose side is the USOC on? China's, or America's athletes?

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